Hey, hey we’re the monkeys!

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What do monkeys and the Australian Olympic swimming team have in common?

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? Sadly, it isn’t a joke. Rather a damning indictment of leadership and culture gone toxic.

There’s a perfect analogy in the organisational development literature that describes how destructive cultures form:

Begin with five monkeys in a cage. Hang a banana from a string and put a ladder or stairs beneath it. When the first monkey puts a foot on the first step, spray the other monkeys with cold water. Repeat as the same or another monkey goes for the stairs. Repeat. Soon whenever a monkey goes for the stairs, the other monkeys react to prevent it, with violent retribution. Put the hose away and take out one monkey, replacing it with a new monkey. Naturally the new one wants the banana, but when it goes for the stairs the others attack it. Repeated attempts result in further attacks. Remove another monkey, replace with another new monkey. The process repeats itself. Soon none of the original monkeys remain, and none of the new monkeys have been subjected to the cold water treatment. They just know that you don’t go on the stairs and you enthusiastically punish anyone who tries. Why? Because that’s ‘how we do things round here’. And that’s how organisational culture comes about

The publication of a review by Bluestone Edge into the leadership and culture of the peak Australian Olympic swimming body sheds damning light on how toxic a culture can become when focus is put on functional or task-based leadership and attention on individual ‘star performers’ at the cost of a more human, team-oriented and relational approach. The failure at the 2012 Olympics in London by a once triumphant, world-beating swimming programme has been laid at the feet of a complex collision of leadership focussing on the wrong things, a failure to transform groups of, and individual, athletes into a team, and inconsistent approaches to bad behaviour, bullying, hazing and other transgressions.

The review is a short but excellent dissection of how things can go terribly wrong when group dynamics are ignored. The authors offer up several recommendations to the leaders of Swimming Australia that are more widely applicable as lessons for leaders in organisations:

1. Pay attention to ethical standards of behaviour and accountabilities.
2. Design processes to deal with things openly and inclusively when performance starts to go wrong.
3. Design and implement innovative, realistic and relevant team-building strategies to deal with fragmentation.
4. Get clear about consequences.
5. Create feedback loops that involve all stakeholders from the leadership to the ‘coalface’.
6. Dire need to reorient, develop and enable leadership to the personal rather than solely functional.
7. Invest in professional leadership development, coach-the-coach and ethical decision-making processes for leaders in the organisation.

Any of us who work in organisations and with teams could learn some vital lessons from those outlined in the review by examining our assumptions, biases and the undiscussed way ‘we do things round here’.

Let’s not be monkeys!

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