“Changes call for innovation, and innovation leads to progress.”
- Li Keqiang, Chinese politician
This is a fine sentiment – but how do you innovate if change, by human nature, is what we are most afraid of? “We’ve always done it that way,” is a phrase that is used a lot in organisations; and it is slowly killing them.
What monkeys can teach us about human behaviour
There is a well-known anecdote about scientists who experimented on rhesus macaque monkeys. Five monkeys were in a cage, along with a banana hung from the cage ceiling and a ladder next to it. When one monkey climbed the ladder to reach the banana, the remaining four monkeys were sprayed with cold water. As this pattern repeated, the monkeys began to physically restrain each other from climbing the ladder. When one monkey was replaced, the new monkey started to climb the ladder, and the remaining monkeys started to attack him. This pattern continued as more monkeys were replaced, with even the newer monkeys joining in the attacks (although they had no idea why). It got to a point where all the monkeys had been replaced, but through legacy behaviours, they were just taught that you attack whoever climbs the ladder. Although the existence of this experiment is disputed, it serves as an analogy to humans’ adversity to change.
Cognitive dissonance: a barrier to progress
Much like the monkeys in the experiment, people at work often experience discomfort when their opinion conflicts with evidence or social norms. So, the monkeys’ instincts told them to reach for the banana, but the pack mentality prevented individuals from doing so. We see similar behaviours in the workplace; an employee could propose a new way of working that could improve output, but dissonance occurs when this employee is inevitably faced with objections largely grounded in our inherent inertia or our fear of change. Consequently, the ineffective way of working continues despite everyone knowing it’s ineffective, and progress is static. After 20 years of working in different sectors and territories – with organisations of all sizes – this is exactly the thing which has stood out for me: embracing change is often a long and drawn out process.
Solving cognitive dissonance through collaboration
In the workplace, how can we use these findings about human behaviour to affect positive change? A psychologist friend of mine said that in order to affect real, authentic change, you need to change the way people think. This is quite a heavy undertaking, so what employers can do is help reduce employee cognitive dissonance by encouraging innovation through collaboration. Aristotle’s phrase, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, may be ancient, but it rings true in today’s workforce: a single, collaborative project worked on by five employees will heed better overall results than five individual projects working in silo. In order to truly affect change, this outdated idea of employees competing to be the ‘top dog’ – or the inverse; employees not wanting others to succeed or innovate lest it go against the status quo – must be eradicated, and collaboration needs to become the norm in the workplace.
The first step here is for employees to acknowledge particular talents they see in others, particularly if those talents are extra to their own.
Bringing behavioural psychology into the workplace with recognition
Having recently moved into a new area of specialism – employee experience technology – one such area in which I have seen fast, positive change is through peer-to-peer recognition. Recognition from our peers is a fundamental psychological need if we are to succeed in life; after all, the monkeys demonstrate what happens when group negativity overcomes individual aspirations. Why not flip this to encourage positive recognitions to affect collaboration and development? Organisations that encourage peer-to-peer recognition as a company-wide norm soon see an upturn in motivation and productivity, and they ultimately achieve their business goals through this cultural alignment.
People need habitual, authentic recognition to stay engaged
In speaking to organisations that only acknowledge an employees’ contribution ad-hoc, or whose systems don’t allow an instant recognition of behaviour, what’s clear is that they cannot hope to harness the enthusiasm of their people. If a recognition is received so late that it feels detached from the initial hard work, the recognition itself loses meaning and engagement goes down. Then organisations miss out on the generation of innovative ideas; a by-product of an engaged workforce. What organisations need in this space is an instant, socially-led, habitual system which, through design thinking, can create a great employee experience.
Encouraging the rogue monkeys
Instant recognition will help encourage behaviours of change, innovation, and disruption internally, but I also think that when we are recruiting for talent, we should be identifying the behaviours of those high-reaching rogue monkeys to join our teams. We need them to help us question the norm, to help our organisations to find new ways of working with the myriad of teams and structures, to achieve what Sir Dave Brailsford labelled as “Marginal Gains”, and make our whole greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, we will stay relevant and keep progressing through innovation.