Rats in a Cage

What do rats in a cage have to do with career, team effectiveness or leadership? Lots!

A fascinating study by Bruce K. Alexander at Simon Fraser University was done looking to better understand drug addiction and the results may surprise you.

Alexander had two groups of rats in his study. One group of rats was kept in a regular cage like most other lab rats on this planet. For the other group of rats, he built Rat Park, a 95 sqft housing colony (which is approximately 200 times the square footage of a normal laboratory cage). Within this space, there were all sorts of areas for engaging in regular rat behaviours including areas for play, foraging, mating and raising families.

Next, he gave both groups of rats morphine until they were physically addicted to the drug (57 days). They were then put in either the small cage or Rat Park. In their living quarters, they had access to a water bottle laced with morphine and to a water bottle with only tap water. Alexander observed which bottle they would drink from. Conventional knowledge about addiction said since they were physically addicted, they would drink more frequently from the water bottle laced with morphine.

For the rats in the cage, this proved to be true. However, for the rats in Rat Park, they drank almost exclusively tap water. No matter what the researchers tried, they could not get the rats in Rat Park to consume more morphine or produce anything that looked like addiction. When rats are given the opportunity to do what they were built to do, they do not generally choose to get high or engage in addiction related behaviours.

Rats in a cage do.

Their conclusion – stress and environment matter.

What does this mean for individuals, teams and organizations?

When you are engaged in work that requires you to be someone you are not, where you use skills you do not enjoy using, where you feel trapped or are not given the space to do what you were built to do, you are much less likely to be producing your best possible results which affects your team and your organization. You are also more likely to engage in behaviours both inside and outside of your working life that may be harmful to you simply as a way of alleviating that stress.

For teams, when you are engaged in projects that are not using the natural skill sets of the team members or have an environment that does not give the team the opportunity to engage in meaningful activities and work, you may find stress induced behaviours taking place as well which are counter productive to what you are working towards. This might mean that you are taking longer to get things done than you might otherwise, you may even be delivering a lesser quality product than is expected or the workload may lie disproportionately on the shoulders of a few which over time will definitely affect the quality as the few burn out or leave. Picture the stress behaviours of rats in a cage – lots of pacing back and forth (going nowhere); excessive drinking (extraneous activities, meetings); even fighting (destructive interpersonal dynamics).

For organizations, is the work you are doing the work you were built to do? Is HOW it is done in alignment with the values of the organization? What are the values of the organization and are they clear to everyone there? Look at the physical space in which you and your employees work. Is it providing space for people to be alone when needed and to congregate both professionally and personally? How are you helping employees determine what they are built to do and what opportunities do you give them to bring that to the organization?

Going even deeper – whether you ask these questions as an individual, a team member/leader, an organization:

  • What are the cages around us and our work?
  • What addictive behaviours are we engaged in? What processes do we continue to follow that no longer serve us? What projects do we take on that don’t suit us but we’ve always done them so we continue to do them? What behaviours do we engage in individually and/or collectively that drain our energy? What stresses are here? Which are external, which are internal? Which can we change?
  • What are the cages we’ve built ourselves?

The cages around you that are there from the market, community, culture, society you may not be able to take down. You can change how you view them, what you do within them.

The cages you have built, you have the power to take down. Get to it.

posted by margo in Uncategorized and has No Comments