We do what we're told - or do we?

The Milgram experiments 50 years on and what they tell us about leadership

Before psychologists worried too much about research ethics a really famous series of experiments took place in the 1960s by a young and charismatic American psychologist named Stanley Milgram to try and understand why seemingly normal people could do terrible things such as the atrocities carried out in Nazi Germany. Milgram tricked participants into thinking that they were administering severe and highly dangerous electric shocks to a fellow participant in another room during an exercise in learning and memory.  According to the data 26 out of 40 participants obeyed the instructions to give increasingly severe shocks up to 450 Volts (two steps beyond the labels on the switches they were using that said Danger: Severe Shock). The experiment has been repeated in various countries and even had a song written about it in the 1980s called "We do what we're told", written and performed by Peter Gabriel as well as being recreated on TV documentaries. The message from these experiments is often interpreted as being that individuals, when ordered to by an apparent authority figure will likely abandon their normal, personal sense of responsibility for their own actions and follow instructions regardless of the consequences.

Some 50 or so years later Milgram’s experiments are regularly cited on management training courses or behavioural safety workshops to provide evidence of the power of leadership for better or worse and the power of the social situation in which an individual finds themselves to influence behaviour. Often the focus is on the set-up: the fact that in the experiment the authority figure wore a white coat, looked and acted as though he was in charge, that it was held in the respected grounds of Yale University and in the fact the authority figure gave the participants clear orders. But over the years many researchers have questioned this simplistic set of conclusions and point out that something else might have been going on that is perhaps even more important to understand for leaders and managers and particularly so if you are keen to change behaviour or transform a culture.

There are many critics of both Milgram’s methods and conclusions but some point out (such as Stephen Gibson from York St John University) that during the experiments there is actually a discussion going on and that it is this discussion that forms the basis for whether the person is likely to follow the orders, not simply the perceived authority of the person giving them. For those that carried out the shocks they were apparently convinced by the story that they were part of an important experiment about learning and had no choice than to continue and that the individual was a willing participant. For the 14 that refused, they countered the narrative they were being provided with about a lack of choice and the importance of their obedience and constructed a different story where they could refuse to comply. 

In some respects this might seem so obvious as not be worth mentioning but it’s important because with all of the focus on power and authority we might forget about the influence upon behaviour of language, rhetoric and discussion. A little known point about Milgram’s experiment was that the least successful command deployed by the pretend scientist was a direct instruction that “you have no choice, you must go on”. In fact this direct instruction was very unsuccessful suggesting that such an obvious command by the authority figure was not enough to overcome the weakness of the argument as it was obvious to most that they did have a choice.

So what’s this got to do with leadership and culture change? For one thing influencing people is not as simple as a credible leader giving clear instructions. To influence others the leader has to have a narrative that makes sense to the team. As soon as people struggle to make sense out of the team’s vision, goals and direction the more difficult it will be to influence the team, regardless of the authority invested in the leader. A narrative or story is a dynamic discussion that all parties need to have a part in creating. Managers who believe they can simply rely on the authority of their position and give orders fail to generate a team story or way of doing things that can be talked about by the members of the team.

The implications are important. For instance if you as a leader want your team to make Health and Safety the number one priority, you must find a way of talking about that that makes sense to members of the team not simply giving a stoney faced reiteration of the corporate line along with strict instructions to follow all of the safety procedures. Having worked on projects where this is the corporate line it can be quite revealing to observe team members trying to make sense out of Health and Safety as the number one priority as a concept. Normal members of the team often not unreasonably discuss among themselves that the safest thing to do would be not to do the job at all so if the job needs to be done for business reasons and we go ahead, regardless of the precautions we take we are prioritising the job above safety. It’s easy for managers to see this type of discussion as people just being awkward and failing to buy into a concept that’s in their own best interests but I don’t see it that way. Simply ignoring this logical if inconvenient argument will not make it go away nor will simply punishing people for saying it but what it may do is drive it underground into a sort of forbidden “truth”. The best leaders in these situations encourage discussion about what we mean when we talk about Health and Safety as the number one priority, they encourage people to talk about how that practically impacts upon the decisions that they make and they also listen to the implications in relation to the way tasks are completed including the time they take. 

The same principles can be applied to Quality or Continuous Improvement in fact any set of behaviours that achieve a new norm or way of doing things. By understanding behaviour in terms of the way it is talked about and the way a narrative is constructed by the team that makes sense to them a more powerful way of leading teams starts to emerge where leaders encourage discussion, where they listen and take part in constructing the team narrative and culture as opposed to trying to impose order from above.

We talk more about this in our online courses and our open management courses and we use these insights in the projects we work. Don’t forget to sign up to our free newsletter where you will receive access to blogs, videos and information about free upcoming events.

References: Paper, Milgram’s obedience experiments: a rhetorical analysis, Stephen Gibson