In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a 27 year old assistant professor of psychology at Yale, conducted was has become perhaps one of the most fascinating experiments of all time. Subjects in this experiment were recruited from the general public and offered $ 4,50 and hour to participate in “memory and learning” experiences. Little did they know that they would be asked to inflict life threatening electric discharges to “learners.” The experiment participants were seated in front of a “shock generator” with thirty switches ranging from 15 -450 volts. The subject could not see the “learner” sitting next door strapped to a chair with electrodes tied to their wrists. Of course the learner was part of the study group and played the role, unknown to the participants.
The experiment participants were told that they were testing the other person’s ability to memorize lists of words, and to administer a shock for every mistake the learner made. As the shocks grew in intensity, the learner pretended to scream in pain, eventually fainting. Amazingly, and despite their nervousness, more than two thirds of the experiment participants went on to administer a killing 450 volts electrical discharge to the learners. The result of the experiment was that two thirds of the participant group went all the way in administering the fatal voltage.
Milgram concluded that when someone in authority orders people, they would obey even to the detriment of their values. Obedience in ingrained in us all the way from when we are brought up, we obey teachers, parents, bosses, anyone in authority.
More recent research by Steven Sherman, also a psychologist, indicates that education can strengthen the power of conscience over authority. He found that by educating people about performing a certain act would make them less likely to obey a direct order if it went against their moral judgment. Contrary to Milgram’s experiment, Sherman found that two thirds of his study group refused to obey.
Translated into the workplace, the implication of these studies are that leaders are seen as authority figures and can exert considerable social and psychological influence over employees, even to a point of persuading them to engage in activities that are contrary to corporate values and ethics. The key here for a leader in any organization is to replace obedience with influence in alignment with the corporate values and ethics.