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Jan 15, 201401:29 PMOpen for Business

with Jody Glynn Patrick

Monster manager? Rollover employee? Why it could be you

(page 1 of 2)

I really enjoy reading Psychology Today, a habit since college days. I mention it now because a recent cover featured a headline that particularly resonated with me: “Confronting the truths that change our lives.”

The benefit of social psychology, I think, is to use what psychologists learn in a manner that makes our lives more productive — or maybe even less productive, if your truth is that you’re a workaholic and it stands in the way of balanced development. Toward the goal of understanding our innate mental universe, first by understanding ourselves and then by understanding other human beings and what drives human behavior, I like to apply research findings to practical examples. It isn’t about figuring out how to manipulate anyone; it’s about figuring out how to more effectively communicate wants and needs.

I was in college when Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority was being 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.

Sixty-five percent of the teachers 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.


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