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  • Writer's pictureJody Glynn Patrick

Monster manager or rollover employee?

Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority has long been widely discussed in social and organizational psychology classes. If you missed it, the premise was that the experiment was rigged so that participants thought they, in the role of “teacher,” were to administer electrical shocks in varying voltages to “learners” who missed answers to posed questions. In fact, the shock level was minimal, but the teacher volunteers did not know that, nor could they judge that by the stooge’s accelerated complaints and screams as the supposed voltages increased.

You think you wouldn’t shock a person beyond their endurance — even in the name of scientific research — right? I mean, no one was standing there with a gun to anyone’s head. The teachers were also shocked — at a moderate level of 45 volts (and it hurt) to impress them as to the severity of the research and their actions. If the teacher resisted administering the next level of punishment for a missed answer, the scientist in charge insisted that the experiment must continue, but his only prod was using sterner and sterner language to demand that the teacher continue. Of course, any teacher volunteer always had the option of leaving the room.

Of the teachers, 65% were willing to progress to the maximum level of 450 volts. Some believed they had actually killed the learner, who was told to stop “responding” at 330 volts. One teacher was so mentally distraught, after refusing to deliver a shock and being told by the experimenter that the research must continue, that he kept repeating the words “it’s got to go on” as he continued delivering shocks.

A variety of experiments were conducted in the aftermath of the original studies, with variables manipulated in differing ways but with the same results. Milgram concluded that the teachers were most likely to shock against their will when the authority figure was close by, as if that proximity allowed the subject to transfer moral responsibility to “the boss.” They also were more likely to shock when they believed they were being asked to do so by a respected organization.

Imagine you are an eager-to-please manager who wants very much to keep a job with a respected business. A lot is open to interpretation if the boss is not clear about the importance of the ethical treatment of staff. From team leader to CEO, there is opportunity — by facial expression, a nod, or actual directive — to influence how people are treated. Thinking that people entrusted with managerial authority will always follow an inner compass with a needle toward personal values is naive when we learn that an authority figure’s magnetism can reset it, sometimes without even realizing it.

There were no monsters in the teacher volunteer group, but they turned into monsters when an authority figure seemed to demand it. Something to think about.

So Milgram proved that authority can be used for evil, and that good people may do bad things if ordered to do so by authority figures. But what if they aren’t ordered to do bad things? We also might consider how much personal control we relinquish to authority figures, and why.

My husband mentioned that he was surprised, when managing a large staff with a lot of interaction with his team, how a simple, casual comment might sometimes elicit tears. The same comment made by someone else, he believed, would have been dismissed as unimportant, incorrect, or unfair. But because he, wearing an invisible but assumed cloak of authority uttered it, the person on the other end of the comment cried. Was he ignorant of how much his opinion mattered, or was the other person assigning too much importance to his every word?

Positional authority is a strong prod. A typical manager who has not risen in the ranks of the company (an “outsider” brought in) may be surprised to discover how much positional authority he or she adopts with a title, depending on the established workplace culture. In the airline industry, as in the military, what the “commander” pilot says is law — lives depend on people immediately following the pilot’s orders. The FAA found, when researching pilot error, that many times crew members realized the boss was incorrect but, due to positional authority, did not challenge the pilot. During simulator tests to test the theory, 25% of the time the pilot made a grave error, knowledgeable staff remained silent and let the plane crash rather than confront his or her authority.

The voluntary rolling over and exposing the belly behavior … I have a feeling (a hope, actually) that millennials will challenge that kind of submission going forward in time. I think it would be very interesting to take today’s college students, label them teachers, hand them shocker buttons, and see how far up the voltage gauge they go.

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