When I wasn’t quaking in my waterproof shoes walking across a swaying footbridge high above a lush rainforest in Costa Rica, I was listening intently as our guide described the complex eco-system of the forest.
Jose told incredible stories about how plants, animals and even the atmosphere compete and cooperate to sustain the delicate balance of life in the forest. One story in particular stood out, perhaps because of its sobering relevance to my own practice as a facilitator of organizational change.
When the Hanging Bridges tour was opened, well-meaning guides were motivated to provide visitors with a memorable experience. Specifically, people wanted to see wildlife and especially, monkeys.
Yet a rainforest is not a zoo. Monkeys and other fauna are not just hanging around waiting to entertain us; they have other priorities. So in order to satisfy tourists’ desire to see wildlife, guides inconspicuously dropped banana pieces on the trail, which monkeys found irresistible (just to be clear, bananas are not a natural food for monkeys regardless of how many Curious George books you have read).
Here is what happened when pregnant monkeys ate the bananas – the high level of potassium in the bananas led their fetuses to grow abnormally large. This resulted in impossibly painful and lethal births for both babies and mother monkeys.
The story gets worse: surviving generations of baby monkeys never learned how to independently find food; rather, they became literally dependent on handouts.
Until this pattern was discovered, and discontinued, the well-intended intervention of the tour guides was killing generations of monkeys. This had enormous ramifications for the fragile eco-system, not to mention the disappointed tourists.
Since our visit to Costa Rica, I think of this story whenever I’m engaged with a client as an ‘outside consultant.’ Jose unwittingly helped me realize that we are, in a way, tour guides, trying to help clients achieve their objectives by developing insights and inspiring behavior change.
What I, and others, sometimes neglect is that our well-intentioned efforts might lead to outcomes that could be less than beneficial. We can inadvertently encourage dependency; we can undermine natural processes and systems.
I’ve seen this in my own practice at times, particularly when clients ask me to help them ‘manage change’ in their organizations. Often, what they really want is for someone else to communicate a difficult message that they, themselves, should be taking responsibility for (like ‘do more with less’ or some other veiled demand).
When I’ve let my ego get the better of me and become that messenger, I actually left people more dependent on me, and less capable of communicating with each other in the aftermath of ‘the intervention.’
But when I am mindful of my experience in the rainforest, I remember to respect the fragile eco-systems of client work environments, and to more carefully study potential ramifications before dropping bananas on the trail.