Understanding the power of culture
If you’re a Change Agent, you’re already familiar with what I’m going to talk about. You have attempted, succeeded or not, to change the status quo, and paid some penalties for your ‘transgressions’. You’ve the scar to show 🙂 You understand that when you challenge the status quo, people attack you. They use verbal attacks, and even sometimes, they may use physical force to shut you up. They may threaten, intimidate, blackmail, call you names, and/or insult/assault you to stop you from ‘disrespecting’ their ‘god’- their culture.
The majority of people in a given culture defend the status quo religiously. They’re blind loyal. The funny thing is that they do so without even knowing why they do what they do to ‘defend’ the ‘god’ they (their ancestors/predecessors to be exact 🙂 themselves created.
There was an experiment that illustrated the power of culture. I’d like to share it to show you how extremely powerful culture is so that if you don’t have the stamina to withstand ‘troubles’ that may come with being a true Change Agent, don’t enter into this ‘fight’- you may not come out alive 🙂
The experiment was conducted in a lab, which was configured to spray cold ice water throughout the room when the ladder in the middle is touched. There were five monkeys in this experiment, and bananas on top of the ladder. The starved monkeys ran toward the ladder to reach the bananas as soon as they entered the lab. When they touched the ladder, all of them were sprayed with brutal cold ice water. The water was so cold that they immediately descended without grabbing the bananas. After a couple of trials with the same brutal cold ice water spray on all of the monkeys, they developed ‘group thinking’ and stopped trying to avoid the cruel cold-water spray.
Soon after, the spray was discontinued.
The monkeys would have enjoyed the bananas without being sprayed if they changed their mind and attempted to climb the ladder again.They didn’t. After awhile, one of the original monkeys was substituted with a new monkey. The latter didn’t have any clue about what was going on. When this newcomer ran toward the ladder to grab a banana, the four original monkeys attacked it thinking that the water spray treatment was still in place. The beating continued even if all the original monkeys, which witnessed the cold-water spray firsthand, were substituted- one by one- with new ones.
What these monkeys that defended the bananas knew was that they had been beaten the first time when they tried to do the same even if they didn’t know why. Afterward, they also watched other newcomers were trampled. Soon after, they joined the ‘group thinking’ and started to defend the bananas from new comers even if they didn’t have any clue why this beating started in the first place.
The same with culture; people zealously defend their respective culture including those unproductive cultural attributes without knowing why they were installed in the first place.
The moral of the story is culture is powerful because its inhabitants guard it obsessively, including those status quos that prevent the society/team from advancing.
I’ve studied the dominant cultures in the world as I prepared to facilitate workshops on diversity, change management, and as I consulted organizations in configuring (reconfiguring) their corporate culture and aligning their people and processes along side their corporate shared values. These opportunities gave me to realize that this is a universal reality. Every culture (whether societal or corporate) has ‘worshippers’- status quo maintainers. They get you in line if they perceive that you don’t worship as they do with the same commitment they’ve toward the culture.
Whatsoever great and positive name you may give your change agendas, and whatever extraordinary outcomes you may promise to the dwellers, the majority’s default response is an emphatic NO! Your innocent, genuine, and passionate drive to change things around for good may be taken as disrespect to their ‘god’.
Here is the truth- there’s no true transformation without reforming a culture. This tremendous task, however, requires bold and courageous leaders who need to find ways to increase the awareness of their people about both positive and negative influences of the culture in bringing lasting changes. That is why Change Agents should be aware of this truth, and should make a conscious decision whether they would like to proceed as true change agents to transform their community, organization, and society. If they do so, congrats! But they should be skillful in gaining buy-in from the majority or else, prepare to face ‘beatings’ like the monkeys 🙂