Or why “do as you are told” is a bad idea.
In 1964, Stanley Milgram back then a young researcher at Yale University, published the results a famous experiment known to this day as the Milgram Experiment.
The set up is simple:
The subject of the experiment takes part himself in a (staged) experiment supposed to study the impact of pain on memory and learning.
For this, he is asked by the experimenter to administer increasingly strong electric shocks to a test subject for every wrong answer.
Of course, the test subject is an actor part of the experiment.
Milgram experiment reveal that more than 50% of tested subjects will administer shocks until the end of the experiment, up to the point where this would be lethal for the test subject.
A figure of authority can convince a regular person to kill, just because ordered to.
Now before you think this is old shit and that today, people are different:
Here is a video of the Milgram experiment re-enacted, and the results are very consistent with the original study:
A few more points:
- This experiments has been re-enacted many times. Each time results have been quite consistent with the original experiment.
- Men and women scored the same in a variation done on gender
- Authority is important for this experiment to work (uniform, legitimacy, etc.)
- Symbols of authorities are the result of a culture
A full detailed analysis of the protocol explains the procedure followed by the experiment and all the variations done to test different hypothesis.
For instance, the role of the uniform :
In the original baseline study – the experimenter wore a grey lab coat as a symbol of his authority (a kind of uniform). Milgram carried out a variation in which the experimenter was called away because of a phone call right at the start of the procedure.
The role of the experimenter was then taken over by an ‘ordinary member of the public’ ( a confederate) in everyday clothes rather than a lab coat. The obedience level dropped to 20%.
Or, if the participant could delegate his personal responsibility to press the button to somebody else, the obedience would increase.
When participants could instruct an assistant (confederate) to press the switches, 92.5% shocked to the maximum 450 volts. When there is less personal responsibility obedience increases. This relates to Milgram’s Agency Theory.
Which clearly give you a hint about why administrations are built the the way they are : the more level and sublevel of responsibility you have the less likely you will see any kind of resistance from an organisation.
Work ethic & Personal responsibility
Milgram experiment is telling us one thing : when work ethic will be challenged by the management
- to drive down quality at the expense of quantity
- to steal, lie, cover things up
- any kind of crazy shit
Then, more than 50% of your staff will be statistically prone to comply and go forward even if he/she knows it goes against what should be acceptable in the work place.
When more than half of your organisation cannot prevent bad behaviour to happen, you have a problem.
Side note: As an employee, if you do not want to be a milgram-employee, then just be clear about your own standards and stick to your guns. Also, learn to sell. It helps.
Importance of culture in the company
A work culture where you put all the weight and the responsibility on management will be likely to generate more milgram-employee.
If you care about your organisation, you do not want milgram-people in your org.
If you care about long term, build a culture that will push for higher personal responsibility and work ethic.
One thing you need for that: content which you can use to educate your organisation, on a regular basis and at all levels.
A simple example of workshop you can run
Show your staff the Milgram experiment, then ask them to discuss how do they think they should react when ask to do stuff they don’t agree with even thought the manager tell them it is okay…
Full version of the experiment