Photo by Festeban
The Milgram Experiment was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience (in this case, giving a lethal electric shock to another person).In layman terms, Milgram showed in his experiment people’s tendency to conform to an authority figure.
This experiment was mentioned in our Marketing class a week ago as a reminder of the power we, as managers, will have over people, meaning, especially consumers. If people will generally do what ever you tell them and will easily believe whatever you tell them, that means you have a power and responsibility.
I especially enjoyed the discussion in class because just a few days before that I watched a Law & Order: SVU episode that dealt with the same experiment, featuring Robin Williams. In it, Williams plays a man who lost his wife because he listened quietly to his doctor even though he knew the doctor was wrong. This drives him mad and he starts calling people claiming to be Detective Milgram convincing them to do terrible things. He starts a movement calling people to: “Stop being sheep”. This video is the end of this great episode:
Both of these mentions of the Milgram Experiment got me to think on the implications of that experiment to people in managerial positions. The fact that we have the power of authority is a given. The fact that this power comes with responsibility is also a given. But most of the time managers don’t use this power to bring people to perform acts that conflict with their personal conscience. They just use that power to ignore people. And by that, they lose so much.
Most people will conform to authority. As managers we should discourage that. We should recognize those who challenge our authority in a constructive ways. We should encourage institutionalized devil advocacy. The responsibility lies with us as managers.
And off course, the coin has two sides. As employees, how do we treat our managers? Are we behaving like sheep? Do we stand up for what we believe in?
I will finish with a quote by Hugh Macleod from Gapinvoid, that is not directly linked to this subject, but which I find invigorating to think about from time to time.
The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care.
So, what is your personal takeaway from the Milgram Experiment?