Donuts and Monkeys

We have a tradition at work called the Donut Offense.  You receive a Donut Offense from your peers whenever a list of good or bad things happens to you.  The list includes: have a baby, get your picture in the paper, win an award, forget your badge at home.  Once you receive a Donut Offense, much like receiving a speeding ticket, you are required to pay your fine.  You can guess what the fine is for a Donut Offense. Yep. It’s donuts for your entire work group.

The history of the Donut Offense is long and storied in our workplace with some groups publishing elaborate lists of offenses and posting them prominently in their work areas. Others stick to the simple list similar to the offenses above.   Either way, the Donut Offense is everywhere and no one knows when it started or why.

What troubles me about this tradition is the way it influences individuals to either shy away from success or face punishment.

Last week for example, an award presentation was haunted with Donut Offenses hurled at the award winner, the coworker who nominated her for the award and the bystanders in the room who might–just might–be in the pictures in the work newspaper.  What should have been a joyous occasion unblemished by threats was filled with symbolic tickets against the winner, coworker and group happiness.  No one likes a cop writing tickets at a party.

My attempts at unraveling the Donut Offense’s power over the organization always leads me to the experiment with the monkeys, the fire hose and the banana. It is a fabulous experiment highlighting how quickly groups can take on and perpetuate destructive behaviors.

The experiment goes roughly like this:

  • Put five monkeys in a cage.
  • Add a ladder and a banana at the top of the ladder.
  • When one monkey goes for the banana, spray all the monkeys with a fire hose.
  • Repeat as necessary, watching the monkeys learn to yank down any monkey who even tries to go for the banana.  Soon you won’t have to use the fire hose to keep the monkeys away from the banana.  They will keep each other from reaching the prize.
  • Slowly swap one monkey out for a new monkey who has never seen the fire hose, but learns through mimicking the others to pull down any monkey that goes for the banana.
  • Repeat the swap until all five original monkeys are gone and no monkey in the cage has ever seen the fire hose.  They will continue to pull at any monkey who tries for the banana.

Maybe you don’t have the Donut Offense at your organization, but I bet you have some tradition that is equally as destructive to joy.

Has that tradition stopped you from celebrating a success, from sharing your joy or telling your story to others?

Stop being a scared monkey.  The fire hose is gone.  It’s time to go for the banana.

Why not try?

2 thoughts on “Donuts and Monkeys”

  1. I think the “donut offense” is a pretty ridiculous (but mostly harmless) tradition and our group has never followed that tradition. But I also think there’s a large population of people who enjoy it. Maybe it stems from a control/ownership thing… it’s a tradition that’s owned by the people (not the organization) so they don’t want to relinquish control. Who knows??? I do know that bananas are delicous and if I’m hungry I’ll take on the firehose and the monkeys.

  2. I think it’s actually a way for folks to share in their joy in an awkward engineering sort of way. Here’s my story: When you get a dramatic haircut, people in the office say “did you get a haircut?” You say yes, then they proudly smile like they accomplished something good. In the memorized social cues, they stopped one line short. I say thanks for noticing, but I realize in other social circles you are supposed to compliment (even if you don’t mean it!). “Outsiders” would take their lack of compliment meaning it was so horrible they couldn’t possibly mutter a kind word, which is never what the engineer meant.
    So in that same vein of assuming well intentioned people, it is their way of saying good job, we watched you work hard, we appreciate you, let’s break bread together to celebrate. It just comes out as “you owe donuts” and an awkward smile.
    Or maybe I just really love donuts =)

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