“The essence in obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as an instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.” ― Stanley Milgram
Social psychologist and Yale professor Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a controversial experiment on obedience and authority in the 1960’s. Following the Nazi war crimes from WWII where the German soldiers defended themselves in court trials as “Not Guilty” because they were just following orders, Milgram’s intent was to expose how willingly people behave towards those in charge.
EXPERIMENT: Milgram engaged volunteer students to play the role of being electrically charged, where the ultimate charge involved excruciating pain and could potentially kill someone. While they were indeed connected to equipment, there was no exposure to pain – they simply acted. The subjects, unaware of the ruse, believed that the volunteer students could be hurt as they turned a series of “electrical” switches in increasing amounts of voltage under the direction of a “scientist.” The volunteers were placed in an adjacent room, however, their screams, cries of pain, and shouting to make it stop, could easily be heard. Whenever the subjects hesitated to turn the next switch of a higher voltage, the scientist would calmly state, “the experiment must continue.” How many continued?
RESULTS: Nearly two-thirds (65%) of the subjects completed the entire experiment. Not only did they not show concern for the student’s well-being, they insisted that they were not responsible for it, despite having been the one who turned the switch! Their reasoning? “They were just doing as they were told.” Deflection and blame (transference) against the student was also common, e.g. “He was so stupid and stubborn, he deserved to be shocked.”
ABERRATION: So, what about the other 35%? The subjects who refused to continue were those who did not see the scientist as the ultimate authority. They either saw God as who they serve, and/or believed that they themselves must assume accountability for their actions in harming others. This is true leadership, not just whoever is sitting at the top of the pecking order.
SUMMARY: The 65% result demonstrates how the majority of people within a system will ignore how others are hurting if, and when, they feel that they are disrupting their place in the pecking order. They are more prone to following the “rules,” instead of exhibiting empathy and humanity.
APPLICATION TO THE WORKPLACE
In a recent debacle with United, a passenger was literally dragged off a plane, because he refused to give up his paid-for seat to crew which needed to be sent to the destination city for work the next day. United had offered vouchers to those four who would give up their seats, but it wasn’t monetarily sufficient for the passengers to volunteer, so the four passengers to be ejected off the aircraft were selected (through algorithms) for “forced volunteerism” – which United referred to as “re-accommodation.” When the fourth passenger refused to deplane, the crew called Security, which ended up forcefully dragging the passenger off the flight, and, in the process, bloodied the passenger. Despite protests from fellow passengers, Security dragged the passenger up the aisle and off the plane.
The United crew, commended by their CEO the following day for their judgment, elected to not incrementally increase the price of the voucher for self-select volunteerism, which could have very well led to four passengers voluntarily agreeing to deplane. Instead, United resorted to treating its customers as cargo.
As Simon Sinek wrote, “We don’t just trust people to obey the rules, we also trust that they know when to break them. If good people are asked to work in a bad culture, people will be more concerned about following the rules out of fear of getting in trouble or losing their jobs than doing what needs to be done. When fight or flight is the name of the game and no broad Circle of Safety exists, then kill or get fired is the best strategy.”
Jack Welch, former CEO of GE and author of at least five books on (so-called) leadership, is among several corporate leaders who began treating people as an expendable resource back in the 1980’s. Since then, other organizations believed they should follow suit and use layoffs to meet their numbers for Wall Street. One company in the South (which no longer exists) followed this practice for 8 consecutive years, and, according to its former head of HRIS (Human Resource Information Systems), manipulated the data to falsely represent that more formerly exited employees were wishing to return than those wishing to leave.
IMPACT ON THE YOUNGEST WORKFORCE
It is little wonder why Millennials have been dubbed as “disloyal” for leaving companies after relatively little time. Bear in mind the following, which shaped their perspective:
- Millennials witnessed the fall of “stable organizations” such as Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and Lehman Brothers – companies to which some of their parents had dedicated their entire careers.
- Millennials watched their parents’ devastation over losing money to fraudulent stockbrokers, like Bernie Madoff.
- Some Millennial families became homeless after the Dot.com bust of 2000, or the housing-market crash of 2008.
- Worst of all, many Millennials lost their parents in the ultimate sacrifice of solely showing up for work at the Twin Towers on 9.11.01.
What they observed is that company loyalty towards its talent for how hard their parents worked or how much they sacrificed or how well they contributed to the company no longer translated into job stability. In a workforce predominantly consisting of egalitarians, loyalty is not a one-way street. Therefore, it is paramount that empathy and humanity be part of the corporate equation in order for retention, productivity, and stock to stay strong. It is a balance that must be remedied in order for our economy and personal health to be robust.
Leadership displays empathy and humanity. Praise your talent for those traits; role-model them. Empower them to use their minds to overcome rules which may oppose these traits, and, like United, you could potentially save your company a $800 million public relations disaster.
Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Global Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners. She is the author of The Corporate Looking Glass: Using Culture for Your Competitive Advantage. We increase retention. Visit CorporateLookingGlass.com.
Stanley Milgram. Obedience to Authority
Simon Sinek. Leaders Eat Last