The 100th Monkey
Scientists have been studying the Macaca fuscata (better known as the macaque), a wild monkey species native to Japan, for many years. On the island of Koshima, the scientists left sweet potatoes on the sand along the beach for the monkeys. This allowed them to observe the macaques more closely. The monkeys liked the taste of the sweet potatoes; but, did not like the sand that dusted the potatoes. A 19-month old female, the scientists named Imo, discovered that she could remove the sand by washing the potatoes in water nearby. Soon, her mother was washing her potatoes. Shortly thereafter, her playmates and their mothers learned to wash their potatoes. Within three years, all the younger monkeys and their mothers were washing their sweet potatoes, but not the older monkeys. Then, something remarkable happened – suddenly all the Koshima monkeys were washing their potatoes.
The story of The Hundredth Monkey was first told by Lyall Watson in his book Lifetide (1979). It has become popular as a strategy for social and organizational change and its central idea is that when enough individuals in a group adopt a new idea or behavior, an ideological breakthrough occurs that allows this new awareness to be communicated directly from mind to mind without the connection of external experience. Then all individuals in the population spontaneously adopt it. “It may be that when enough of us hold something to be true, it becomes true for everyone.” (1)
In the original published research, there was no mention of a critical threshold number of monkeys. So, rather than an example of spontaneous transmission of ideas, the story of the Koshima macaques is an example of a change in the basic operating assumptions of the group (also called a paradigm shift or a transformation), where a new idea or behavior gradually spreads throughout a group such as a team, department, or organization. It is also an example of how a simple behavior change can lead to extensive culture change.
(The 100th Monkey: A Story of Social Change was written by Key Keys Jr. and first published in his book The Hundredth Monkey in 1982. I summarized the story for this blog.)
Transforming the Workplace
According to the Social Transformation Project in Oakland, CA, “Transformation is a profound, fundamental change, altering the very nature of something. Transformational change is both radical and sustainable. Something that is transformed can never go back to exactly what it was before.” (2)
When I use the word transformation, I am not referring to gigantic corporate change projects that cause you to roll your eyes or cringe. I am referring to small incremental acts that start with individual workers – like you and me. Small quiet acts of kindness towards our co-workers, managers, clients and vendors can change the environment of the workplace. How we behave, how we do our work – basically how we live our lives – has the power to influence and eventually change the behavior of others. Organizational development specialists and psychologists call it “modeling desired behavior.” Rather than telling others how they should behave; we demonstrate the desired behavior in an authentic, respectful way without explanations or expectations of the other person.
Ideas for Small Acts of Transformation
Small acts of transformation are free. They cost us nothing but a little thought, time and kindness. They spread from person to person, like the common cold. You smile and say hello to me. I smile and say hello to the next person and on, and on it goes. Here are some suggestions for small transformational acts:
- Share information with your co-workers and managers.
- Invite a co-worker to take a break with you or have lunch together.
- Acknowledge your mistakes, apologize and explain how you will correct the situation.
- Keep your word – when you say you will do something, do it.
- Refrain from gossiping.
- Say please and thank you.
- When speaking with others, use “we” rather than “I.”
- Refrain from judging – give others the benefit of the doubt.
- Ask a co-worker to teach you something new or show you how to improve a task.
- Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers.
- Listen more than you speak.
- Offer to help a co-worker.
- Ask co-workers about their families, pets, hobbies, etc. and show genuine interest in their responses.
This is the lesson of the 100th monkey – with kindness and patience, we can change our workplaces for the better. Do you have an idea for a small act of transformation? Share it with us in the form below.
1. Watson, Lyall, Lifetide, New York: NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979
2. Gass, Robert, “What is Transformation?” Social Transformation Project, http://www.stproject.org/resources/publications/what-is-transformation/ , retrieved April 4, 2014