Recently I read an interesting article, “WHY IS IT SO EASY TO GET PEOPLE TO DO BAD THINGS?”

In the article, the author reviewed the Milgram experiments of the 1960’s. I quote from the author’s review of that study:

“Stanley Milgram was a psychologist at Yale University. He started conducting experiments in July of 1961 to find out how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person; he wanted to know how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities. He examined the validity of the Nuremburg defense as it was based on “obedience”; those who used this defense were just following orders from their superiors. The experiment required a volunteer participant (referred to as the teacher), an authority figure, and someone placed by Milgram (the learner). The teacher was instructed by the authority figure to hit a switch that released a shock of electricity to the learner. The learner was not truly getting shocked, but would scream and cry out as if he were. The voltage gradually increased from 15V (slight shock), to 300V (dangerous), and finally to 450V (deadly). 65% (two-thirds) of participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
What Milgram found was that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.”

Then the author went on to review the results of a second study conducted at the University College London and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. This study focused on why people behave this way.

Several important points from the study were described in the article. The comments below are copied from the article cited above. (The bold has been added for emphasis).

1. “Maybe some basic feeling of responsibility really is reduced when we are coerced into doing something,” says Patrick Haggard of University College London. “People often claim reduced responsibility because they were ‘only obeying orders.”

2. “Haggard and his team decided to start by measuring a responsive phenomenon called “sense of agency.” Sense of agency is basically a feeling that you are controlling your own actions, and therefore the events that follow… Most people feel that they are in control of what they are doing the majority of the time: that is considered a normal sense of agency. In order for a society to connect and work together properly, sense of agency is needed because it is central to the idea of taking responsibility for our own actions.”

3. “What Haggard and his colleagues found was that people feel a reduced sense of agency when their actions produce a negative effect versus a positive one.”

Finding: “Why is it so easy to get people to do bad things? It boils down to a shift in responsibility. If you believe you are responsible for a harmful action, you might be less inclined to follow an order that causes you to harm another person. Because we are programmed to accept authority figures as upstanding members of society, we follow orders… But, when someone of authority orders you to do something you normally wouldn’t do, it seems a part of the brain is rewired. When sense of agency is decreased, signals are sent…(that) alters our perception of time, combined with reduced feelings of responsibility”.

What Happens When The Group Takes Control From The Leader?

Today society and groups are defining leadership in their own image. Good leadership is defined by what the group thinks the leader should do, say or be. In essence the group is demanding the leader to behave in a certain way. This, in essence, reverses the authority roles written about in the article above. The group becomes the leader and the leader becomes the follower. (This same pressure can come from customers as well).

I have observed this phenomenon first hand. Leaders, in order to curry favor or gain support or simply due to a lack of strength, agree to actions that individuals or groups want, even though the leader is not in agreement with those specific actions. In the leader’s mind, the group or individual pushed them into this course of action and therefore becomes responsible for the action. (Flip Wilson’s “The devil made me do it” justification). Of course we know this is not valid since the leader is ultimately responsible for all that is done but at the point of decision making the leader is able to transfer responsibility to the group. The implications of the study above suggest this is the thought process behind the leader’s acquiescence.

Leadership Thoughts

As one ponders these studies combined with the intersection of the movement to more engagement and collaboration coupled with the changing role of leader from director to facilitator and the unclear and often faulty understanding of the role of leadership, we see the mounting pressure on leaders to acquiesce. Yet that is not the solution that is required. What is needed is even stronger leaders. When leaders sell out their leadership role in order to comply with what a group wants several consequences occur.

1. Leaders must be increasing very clear about what they honor, value and believe in. Confusion over the lines that truly are “red lines in the sand” will have to be clear to all parties and these lines (or principles) will have to be reinforced religiously.

2. Leaders will need to develop the courage to say “No” where actions are proposed that violate these principles. As the leadership role changes from dictator to facilitator, there is a tendency to endorse whatever the group recommends. We must collaborate, involve, and delegate authority, right? We must let the group make their own mistakes or they will not learn. There is a tendency by many young leaders to be the group’s friend and to go along with whatever the group wants. This approach may qualify to be a nanny (my apologies to all great nannies out there!) but it does not qualify as leadership.

3. When groups are able to push leaders into violating articulated values and principles, the group’s trust in leadership will decline. Trust in leadership is already at an abysmally low level but it will sink even further when groups begin to realize that there really is nothing the leader is unwilling to compromise. (Red lines in the sand are just words). Great justifications and rationale will not be able to hide the fact that the leader is a person without convictions or a backbone.

4. Trust will decline but relationships will be destroyed. If the studies above hold true, leaders will blame the group when proposed actions fail. It will be at that point that the leader expresses that fact that he or she did not really support the recommended course of action after all. When the group hears this, they will realize that they are being left up the proverbial creek without a paddle and it will be next to impossible for the relationship between that group and leader to continue.

Final Thought: Collaboration and involvement is good. Facilitating a group’s thinking is an effective leadership style. But when they are done in the wrong way, the faulty execution can actually damage the organization. Many young leaders will continue to be misled on proper leadership of people by the charlatans masquerading as leadership development and management consultant experts.

There is only one foundation on which future leaders can build their legacies. Be people of strength based on a set of principles that are truly honored, valued and believed in. There will come a time in every leader’s life when they realize that what was important was to stand for something rather than to placate others and curry their favor.

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