Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Far Can People Be Pushed?

Back in the '60's, Stanley Milgram ran an experiment to see how much pain people would inflict without much, if any, coercion. Most would predict that few would cause much pain. It became very controversial when he showed that 26 out of 40 people would deliver life-threatening electrical shocks in the pursuit of learning if electrical shocks (pain) improved people's ability to learn or remember paired words. With just a professorial looking person watching, those people delivered  450 volts (labeled "XXX" and beyond "Danger: Severe Shock") to a person who had said earlier he had heart problems, and was screaming to be released from the straps when 100+ volts were given, and subsequently went quiet. Many people questioned whether they should continue administering the punishments but continued when the lab-coated person said, "The experiment requires that you continue." Since he published his results, there's been a big debate about why so many carried out the experiment and so few quit. The few that quit did not quit immediately. They also administered shocks that were labeled "Moderate", "Strong" and worse before they quit. [The other person in the experiment was not actually being shocked but was an actor.]

There was no great financial risk to quitting either. We know that many people go along with shady situations in our companies because they can't afford the risk of a job.

In Milgram's first experiment, the participants were alone with the "scientist". Milgram followed up with other experiments to know if the results would change if others were also participating. When two others resisted the 'scientist', only 10% of the participants went to the full extent of the experiment versus 65% in the first experiment. 90% dropped out along the way, still administering some shocks. This is more encouraging that if unethical behavior occurs, people will resist if they know others are resisting too.

What was more disturbing is that peer pressure the other way--two other people urging the participant to continue the experiment--put the numbers back up to 2/3rds of the participants going all the way. One-third had the courage to resist when alone or when in a group.

If you have unethical behavior going on in your company, chances are low that people will report it or resist it to the point of stopping it. They will all raise objections, but if an unethical leader implies that it's necessary or required to "do it this way," most of us will continue and comply. If we think there's some implied consent on the part of the rest of the organization--of course, people agreed to not being paid overtime when they agreed to work here, right?--they will rationalize their complacency with the status quo. Especially, if they identify that the behavior helps the organization succeed, and they trust the company or department leader, they certainly will not quit participating.

This is discouraging for those of us who strive for continuous improvement, put our faith in ethics agreements and trying to get people to change. When there's pressure to conform, we will. Let's hope we have a few brave individuals who will visibly try to make things better. If so, we have a better chance of getting most of the group to do the right thing.

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