The age old question of how to get someone to do what you want.. it is asked every day by people worldwide. Wives wanting new kitchens, daughters wanting new shoes… and by people in the workplace.
So… How DO you get groups of people to conform to your will and your way of thinking? Whether you are bringing in a new business strategy, a new management team, or a general change of pace? Do you offer them pension schemes? Pay rises? Or do you don a white coat and tell them that they have no choice?
Dr Stanley Milgram would suggest the latter. Milgram’s agency theory suggests that people have two main psychological states. Autonomous and Agentic. In an Autonomous state, a person will made decisions and judgements abiding by their own beliefs, moral codes and experiences, whereas in an Agentic state a person acts as an “agent and defers to a person of a higher status. Milgram supported his theory with the infamous obedience study, which rattled many with its astounding results. The experiment, taking place in 1961, originally set out to answer questions regarding the individual blame regarding the actions of those involved in the Holocaust. Milgrams study involved middle class, American business men, who were set the role of “teacher” in a teacher/pupil scenario. A confederate was set the role of pupil, and the participants were lead to believe that they entered into the role of teacher by chance. During the experiment, the participants were asked to teach the pupil a list of word pairs remotely through a headset to the pupil who was in a separate room. The teacher was given an electric shock from the electro shock generator and told that if the pupil answered a question asked by the teacher incorrectly, they were to be shocked, with the shocks increasing at a rate of 15V for each wrong answer.
Of course, the confederate pupil was not receiving electric shocks when the participant pressed the shock button. Ethics in 1960 may not have been what they are today but still, shocking someone at 450v was frowned upon. This was a good job, as Despite the participants being able to hear the confederate (which was really a tape recording) shouting out in pain, pleading for them to stop and generally making rather a great deal of noise, a staggering 65% of participants issues “shocks” to the confederate of up to 450V.
Naturally this wasn’t a room full of masochists that Milgram had found wandering round the USA, and many of the participants experienced lasting trauma and psychological damage. When they pleaded with Milgram to stop the experiment, they were forcefully told to continue, and that they had no choice, despite their protests. This lead to 3 participants having fits/ fainting attacks.
Milgram performed many variations of the experiment, and found that participants were more complaint when a white coat was worn by the experimenter. Apparently a priest or a man in jeans does not hold the same level of trust or authority. This is an interesting point to ponder, as, despite its criticism, both in terms of ethical issues, and the fact that It offers a ‘way out’ of blame for the likes of football hooligans, rioters and people who park on double yellow lines because the Audi in front did, It suggests that people will in general automatically obey without question, if they regard the person instructing them to be in a position of authority.
This issue has been raised time and time again in business and ethic textbooks as it shows the importance that actions can have on your team, and also as a reminder to try and be as autonomous as possible when making executive decisions.
Milgram’s ideas have also been applied to obedience to management in the workplace. If you can appear a strong and confidant leader or manager, (minus the injection of fear placed into the unwitting subjects of Milgram’s experiment) you can radiate a level of authority and strength that people gravitate towards and trust. Milgram’s experiment only showed high levels of obedience in the variations where a high level of power was felt by the participants. Now, power and authority are two separate entities, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the way to make people compliant and obedient is to rule with an iron fist constantly, because that comes with its own set of problems (and counselling bills) but certainly, a level of confidence and calm authority will indeed make people listen to you. Social psychology, and indeed sociology has shown time and time again that people, in general are willing to please and conform. Very few people, when it comes down to it actually want to stand out from the crowd, for fear of rejection or being isolated (which, for early humans, almost certainly made them lunch for some 4 footed, saber toothed predator). It is ingrained in the human psyche to follow orders if they are good, or follow a rebel if they are bad. When good authority and leadership disappears, that is when the proverbial ship starts to sink.
So, to summarise, if you wish to encourage people to listen to your ideas and come together to work for you, some level of power and authority has to be achieved and maintained, as without respect there is no control over peoples reactions to you.
Of course the other option is to buy a white coat.
Catherine Ball is an associate at MBA and a graduate psychologist MBA Associates Ltd is a specialist consultancy that partners clients to Recruit, Retain and Develop Top Performing Teams.
© Catherine Ball August 2011