We’ve all heard of the Milgram experiments that tested how far people would go in obeying authority figure who instructed them to actually create physical pain for another human being.
The person administering the shock would read a list of word pairs to the “learner” in another room. The “learner” would then indicate his response. If the answer was incorrect, the subject would administer a shock with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer.
While there were no actual shocks, the subjects administering them believed they were real. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor playing the “student” would begin to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject and complain about a heart condition, until he grew silent.
Almost every subject questioned the purpose of the experiment at this point. Most, however, continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible for the results. The subjects became nervous, often laughing, or shaking, or crying. Yet, still, they complied.
What Kept Them Going . . .
If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experiment leader in this order:
Prior to the experiment, most scientists guessed that less than 3% would administer shocks that reached the final 450 volt blast.
At the end of the experiment, 65% continued until the highest level of shock was administered.
They Still Follow the Leader
Replication of Milgram’s experiments have shown similar results years later. Not only do people follow the leader, but they follow them at their own peril. They follow even when every part of their body tells them not to. They follow even when it’s killing them or someone else.
I don’t have the expertise or knowledge to determine why this happens, but I do think it’s an important part of understanding how authority can make or break us.
I’ve been in organizations with ethical CEOs who cared about their people, and I’ve been in organizations with CEO’s who padded their golden parachute while letting 35 year employees fall without a pack on their back. Working in and with these organizations, I found the following symptoms of what I call “Abusive Authority”:
Pay attention to your surroundings. Does your organization have any of the “AA” symptoms? If so, check out the authority figures in and around you. You might find ways to improve the situation, or you might need to move on.
Authority Abuse is the direct enemy of all dynamic change and improvement, yet it exists. Why?
Because people still believe in the leader. And the majority will follow that leader’s orders, even if it destroys their spirit.