Psychology has Pavlov's Dog. Quantum physics has Schrodinger's cat. Management has a bunch of monkeys and paranoid elephants.
The apocryphal thought experiment goes something along these lines. Take several monkeys (but not too many!), a cage, and a banana. You will also need a hosepipe and a substantial supply of very cold water. Place half the monkeys in the cage, along with the banana, but make sure the banana requires some effort for the monkeys to obtain. Some writers suspend it from a string, or put it at the top of some steps. Now the monkey torture begins.
One enterprising monkey will head for the banana. Before he gets it, hose down all the monkeys in the cage with cold water. Shortly afterwards, another monkey will try to get the banana, resulting in yet another thorough dousing for the monkey and all his buddies. It takes only a little of this conditioning for the monkeys to develop a conditioned response. Should another monkey have the nerve to make a move for banana nirvana, his fellows will hammer the crap out of him before he gets a chance.
Before the second part of the experiment begins, it's worth taking a look inside the cage. Monkeys are social creatures, but the conditioning has produced an inevitable social breakdown. Each monkey will keep himself to himself, whimpering uncontrollably at the thought of the unseen denizen of the hosepipe. Presumably, each monkey is experiencing the long dark teatime of the soul trying to convince himself that, actually, he never really cared much for bananas anyway.
Once deadlock has been reached, with no monkey daring to even contemplate bent yellow fruit, there's no longer any need for the hosepipe. Instead, our experiment continues by replacing one of the monkeys with the spare ones we left out of the cage, who have been busy entertaining themselves doing the things that monkeys do best. Inevitably, the new monkey makes a beeline for the banana, and gets his reward, a ritualistic beating. The system is now autonomous. When a second replacement monkey is brought in, the last arrival will quite happily join in the ensuing brawl.
From here, it's easy to continue to the logical conclusion. Continue replacing monkeys, one at a time. At each step, the new monkey receives a beating for his banana lust. Monkey see, monkey do - and our new monkey joins the group of sociopaths. Ultimately we end up with a cage full of monkeys, none of whom have ever been sprayed with water, who will all happily pounce on any monkey with banana ambitions. Why do they do it? Because that's the way things have always been done, and the inevitable punchline - that's where company policy comes from.
It's easy to feel sorry for Pavlov's dog, drowning in a sea of drool. Schrodinger's cat had been destined for a lot in the harp farm as soon as he got put in the box. But the monkey experiment is much closer to home - well, closer to the office. It takes very little social conditioning before we conform to something for no reason that is ever adequately explained.
One might wonder if the monkey cage has a more critical effect than the production of psychotic monkeys. Innovation and creativity are certainly the first character traits to bite the dust, and our efforts to conform will finally destroy our individuality, once we let it. There probably is a way to get that banana, but everything is set up to stop us trying. The autonomous system turns us into mindless automata.
Ever seen an adult elephant at a circus? Look closely next time you decide that genre of entertainment is just the thing for you after a hard day at the cubicle farm. Even better, try to take a look in the paddock before the show starts. You may see an elephant with a small length of rope around its neck, attached to what, for the pachyderm, is a piece of wood about the size of a toothpick. As a baby, the elephant had been tied to one end of a leash, and the other end to this small stake in the ground. Without a doubt, the little elephant had tried to pull free from the leash and run away from the circus, but to no avail, until finally the elephant had given up trying. The elephant grew, convinced that it would never be able to pull the stake from the ground, and presumably is convinced he enjoys standing on a box and balancing a ball on his trunk, and had never noticed the stake was just trailing behind him all that time.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise to discover just how many animal analogies and metaphors appear in modern life. Again, it's all conditioning. We've been led to believe it's all part of the natural order, yet at the same time we are following career paths that keep us away from a greater good. It's time to pull that stake from the ground, because it's not been holding you back at all. What? You're worried you'll be doused with water? Never fear. An individual like you will do just great in the service industry.
A sample monkey experiment text was found at http://www.notzen.com/andrew/monkey.html on October 31, 2003, but information on its origins seems hard to find.
No monkeys were harmed during the production of this write-up.