In the 1960s, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram conducted what is now famously known as the “Milgram Experiment” to study the degree to which people will obey authority—even if that means going against one’s better judgment and good conscious.
For those not familiar with the controversial Milgram Experiment, it went like this: People who volunteered for the experiment thought they were taking part in a study on learning and memory. As part of the study, the volunteer “teacher” would read out words to the “learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the next room over. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was ordered by “authority” to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity, going all the way up to 450 volts (labeled as “Danger: severe shock” on the machine).
Some people, horrified that they were causing pain to the person in the next room, decided early to disobey authority and not continue with the experiment. Alarmingly, however, most continued to follow orders until they were administering severe shocks—even after the learner pleaded for his life and fell deadly silent. Only after the experiment was complete did the volunteers learn that the shocks were not real, the cries of pain had been pre-recorded, and that the learner was unharmed.
At one point in the experiment, a hesitant volunteer asked, what would happen if something were to happen to that person, at which point the authority hastily replied, “I’m responsible if anything happens.” This answer appeared to relieve the volunteer, who continued administering the shocks.
That most people are reluctant to challenge and confront authority figures who abuse their power explains why, in many cases, lower-level employees engage in bad behavior, ultimately creating legal and compliance risk for the company. Simply implementing a business Code of Conduct or enforcing laws and regulations will never be enough—because the need or desire to obey authority is so engrained in the human psyche that it voids even the most stringent paper-based policies and laws.
In the corporate world, specifically, people may feel inclined to act against their better judgment to obey a supervisor, manager, or senior-level executive. Such behavior may be driven out of fear of losing one’s job if they challenge authority, or simply out of a desire to please.
People will continue to conduct wrongdoing so long as they believe no personal liability will come from it, commonly resulting in a cyclical blame game among the C-Suite, managers, and lower-level employees alike.
In several egregious cases in recent years—in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries, in particular—employees’ willingness to obey authority and engage in unethical behavior was even rewarded with a generous bonus or promotion when that wrongdoing involved questionable sales and marketing practices to elicit business.
In many other cases that have resulted in corporate enforcement actions, employees engaged in wrongdoing not necessarily because they were directly ordered by authority to do so, but rather because the company’s corporate culture served as petri dish of toxic behavior, allowing unethical behavior to multiply. What this shows is that middle-managers and senior-level executives don’t have to encourage or authorize illegal conduct outright for wrongdoing to flourish; the consequences of ignoring such behavior yield the same results.
Another telling finding to come from the Milgram Experiment that often applies to the corporate world: People will continue to conduct wrongdoing so long as they believe no personal liability will come from it, commonly resulting in a cyclical blame game among the C-Suite, managers, and lower-level employees alike.
It’s a story enforcement authorities hear time and time again: The CEO blames the lower-level employees. The lower-level employees blame management for placing them under extreme pressure in the first place. Management blames the C-suite for being pressured to live this culture day-in-and-day out, because they need to meet their numbers, or they need to sell more product.
All of this means that having leaders of a global company acting ethically and with integrity is more valuable and effective than any code of conduct or law will ever be. Within best-in-class companies, mood-in-the-middle and tone-at-the-top is not just a mantra, it is the heart of how they operate. It is the recognition that doing what’s right and having employees act in good conscious starts with leading by example. After all, it is just as easy to obey commands that encourage positive outcomes as it is to obey commands that result in destructive outcomes.