Have you ever heard of Harry Harlow? He was an American psychologist that is best known for his social isolation experiments with rhesus monkeys that were conducted in the 1950’s and 60’s. His work was highly criticized as being unethical mainly due to his treatment of the animals, but he also received many awards and accolades for the conclusions that he was able to draw from his experiments. Since he died in 1981, we will leave the ethics out of it and instead focus on the results of one of his experiments.
In one of Harlow’s experiments he placed five rhesus monkeys in large cage. He then hung a banana at the top of the cage high out of the reach of the monkeys. Next he put a step-ladder into the cage that would allow the monkeys to reach the banana. The monkeys were obviously delighted by this development and one of them immediately proceeded up the ladder. As the monkey started up the ladder, all five monkeys (even those that were not touching the ladder) were sprayed with freezing cold water. Obviously the monkeys were stunned for moment, but then proceeded to head back up the ladder. After a couple more freezing showers, they rapidly came to the conclusion that if you touch the ladder, then everyone gets sprayed with freezing water. Even though they still wanted the banana, they gave up their pursuit of it.
That part is not so amazing, but what happened next was. The next step in the experiment was to replace one of the monkeys. They switched one of the original five out for a new monkey. The newcomer did not know any better, so they immediately started for the ladder. Before the newcomer could make it up the ladder or get sprayed, they were pulled off the ladder and beaten by the other four monkeys. This continued until the newcomer was literally beaten into submission and stopped trying to go up the ladder. They continued to switch out each of the original monkeys one at a time. The same process was repeated. The new monkey would be beaten into submission until they stopped trying to go up the ladder. They kept switching out monkeys until none of the original monkeys remained. Keep in mind the hose with the ice-cold water had long been removed so there was no real threat of anyone getting sprayed. None of the monkeys that were currently in the cage had ever been sprayed. They did not have any knowledge of the ice water consequences, but they did know that they would be beaten if they tried to go up the ladder.
What does this questionable experiment have to do with management? Everything. The monkey scenario plays out every day in corporations around the world. The new guy comes in and starts asking questions about why things are done the way they are done and is figuratively beaten into submission by the established employees until he no longer wants to ask questions. He starts to do things the way they have always been done because that is the way we do things around here.
Make sure you schedule a little time to follow back with new employees and see how they are making out and what questions they have. Encourage them to ask you questions about the company’s policies and procedures. If you don’t know the answer to their questions, then research it. A fresh perspective can help you to streamline processes and costs. It will also make the new employee feel like their opinion matters. It is a good practice that can only bring about positive feelings.