The results of the Stanley Milgram experiment on authority can help to teach managers about how people respond to authority and how to become a better manager as a result.
In Stanley Milgram’s experiment, conducted in 1974, he investigated the degree to which individuals would respond to authority, even if asked to do something that would harm someone else. In the experiment, the subjects, referred to as “volunteer teachers,” were told that a learner was supposed to remember pairs of words, and they were supposed to use a machine to give him a shock of increasing levels of intensity, which were supposed to help the learner better remember the word pairs. While the volunteer teachers used the machine, a researcher sat beside the volunteer. Though the learner was not actually being harmed, the learner acted as if he was experiencing more and more pain as the intensity of the shocks increased, and the teacher was led to believe these shocks might even threaten the learner’s life.
The results of the experiment were shocking because such a high percentage of the subjects continued to give the shocks, even when it appeared a shock might be lethal. Even though some volunteers initially resisted, they complied at the insistence of the researcher supervising them. Thus, the subjects went along with what the researcher told them to do, even though they believed what they were doing was wrong and some wanted to stop the experiment. Moreover, the very few subjects who left the experiment, initially cooperated as the electric shocks and pain continued before they finally resisted.
There are many parallels to this experiment in the real world, such as the German people generally going along with Hitler’s escalating attacks on the Jews and other targeted people. Another example is that the soldiers in the regime’s forces in Libya have been willing to fire on innocent civilians, although a growing number of soldiers have defected as the regime has weakened. In corporations, many employees have gone along with internal corruption rather than leave or become whistleblowers, until a government crackdown has toppled the heads of the company and then they have become witnesses, such as in Eliot Spitzer’s crackdown on Wall Street, when he was the Attorney General in New York.
What this experiment, as well as the real world parallels, teach us is that people will generally follow orders that come from someone perceived to be in a position of authority, even if those orders are harmful to others. Though people following the orders may feel the orders unjustified or harmful, they will commonly carry them out, as long as they feel that person giving the order continues to be in a position of authority over them. They are thus willing to go against their own moral compass in response to the demands of authority.
While this willingness to go along with such instructions may seem shocking to those with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong based on the morality they have learned from their parents, teachers, the church, and other authority figures while growing up, it might be viewed as a survival mechanism. That’s because those who conform to and follow the rules may be more successful at surviving and thriving in what is often an unfair, survival of the fittest type of world. They may go along to get along, and often this works as a survival strategy in society, which commonly rewards conformity.
As a manager, the results of this experiment means that employees will commonly go along with orders, even when they disagree with them or feel the instructions may have negative consequences, because they are afraid to say anything or question authority. Thus, employees may carry out policies and procedures that are counterproductive, interfere with operations, or are harmful to the organization, because they are doing what their manager has said to do, since they feel it is safer for them to do so.
Under the circumstances, knowing of this experiment, managers should make it safe for employees to raise questions about any order they feel uncomfortable with, because it might have negative consequences or goes against their feelings of what is right and wrong. To this end, managers should put in place certain procedures so that they can feel safe airing their concerns, such as being able to come to me privately to discuss a concern or being able to send a message to the manager anonymously to share a concern if they feel more comfortable sharing it that way. Another alternative would be to have an opportunity during a staff meeting for employees to raise their concerns, with the assurance there would be no negative consequences for doing so. Managers might even offer a reward as an incentive for employees bringing up concerns that result in positive changes for an improved workplace.