The Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

The scariest words together in the English language, besides those involving the government, are “We have always done it this way”.

Saying these words instantly outs you as someone unable to think for themselves, relying on tradition and unwilling to adapt. As someone who regularly works with business owners and senior level managers as part of his day job, I see this mindset far too often. And given that my objective is to teach these business leaders how to do business with the government after often spending years doing business in the private sector, this mindset is creating problems that are also costing them money.

A famous quote of unknown origin (and quotes like this are almost always of unknown origin because they are so good that everyone rushes to claim them) says “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. In other words, if you continue to stab yourself repeatedly, you’ll continue to receive stab wounds. If you continue to set money on fire when you receive it, you’ll continue to have flaming piles of useless ash.

Granted, some traditions are useful. Many families traditionally gather for a family meal on Sunday evenings, for example. The Danish tradition of hygge (really more a way of life than tradition) is, in an overly simplistic explanation, a tradition of eliminating the annoying and emotionally overwhelming and embracing the simple and soothing things in life. In the USA, our traditions are often tied to holidays. Think overeating at Thanksgiving and dressing up as a “sexy crayon” for Halloween. These types of traditions tie together families and societies.

The danger of traditions comes when you use them as a reliance on continued old practices without evaluating why you are doing them. Without a fresh set of eyes, businesses can continue on dangerous paths for years because no one would tell them what they were doing was wrong. Businesses often hire “efficiency experts” whose job is to come into an organization and figure out weak points in organizational processes. These consultants work closely with management in an effort to root out “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the recommended changes are drastic. Processes change, layoffs happen, printers get tossed into fields and smashed with baseball bats.

I recently came across a great (true?) example of this phenomenon circulating on the internet, referencing research performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson:

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under the banana. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, researchers spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result… all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all the other monkeys assault him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the “team” and has learned the rules.

Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs for the banana. If they could talk, they would simply say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

An unwillingness to change in business can be devastating. Less than half of companies on the Fortune 500 just 30 years ago are still in business. Many were bought out by competitors (think McDonnell Douglas being bought by Boeing…if you are flying on a McDonnell Douglas plane, it’s at least 20 years old. Fair warning), while others folded for financial reasons. They did not keep up with the times and experienced leadership that was not willing to accept that what they’d always done was no longer working. How many of you still have a product from Kodak? And no, Bill Cosby being their spokesman was not the (sole) reason for their decline, although in hindsight maybe that wasn’t the best call on their part.

The mindset also extends beyond business. Religion is often passed down this way, both among families and among small groups and societies. Children continue religious practices they have learned from parents who insist on passing down their own religion. Families pass down non-religious traditions as well. Some are good, like the Sunday dinner, as long as it isn’t forced…don’t make the kid eat the pizza if she is fighting obesity and self-conscious. Some are bad, like female circumcision. Some are just weird, like jumping into frozen lakes on New Year’s Day or the annual Spanish tomato fight.

How do we fight back against this mindset? First off, change for the sake of change does not work. You must have a system in place. When a new proposal is submitted, it should emphasize why there should be a change; look at the old, look at the new, and objectively evaluate it. When a discussion takes place, someone should play devil’s advocate, especially if the decision leans towards the status quo. At home, children should be given every opportunity to explore the world and make their own conclusions, not have traditions forced upon them. Adults tend to fall into ruts because they allow routines to take over their lives. Can YOU remember things you did five years ago without Facebook reminding you? Even holidays are an opportunity. “Why do we eat 10 pounds of meat, get drunk, and blow stuff up?”  “Because it’s the 4th of July”.  Maybe there are other options. Look at your day-to-day life and see how you can adapt your routine to better fit the real you.

A willingness to be open to new ideas and not accept things just because “we’ve always done it that way” is how leaders are born. There’s nothing wrong with continuing a good thing, but we move forward by continually asking ourselves why we do the things we do. The most secure and happiest families are ones that take time to figure out what works for them, not just accepting what society says they should do. The great companies of the world got that way because they saw a problem and were willing to explore solutions. Companies grow and thrive because their people are given opportunities to explore and experiment without repercussions, even if they fail. Be a leader at work and at home, not a monkey fighting over a banana.


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