Are You Subject to Conformity?
Posted on September 28, 2011 by Gail Danneman
In the early sixties, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to investigate how people behave when placed in difficult situations. The results from the study have been used as the foundation for other studies for several years. Many people do not consider what the studies mean in the context of the workplace. However, the studies provide insight into why employees behave the way they do.
The studies, conducted at Yale University, involved an authority figure and a participant. The participant was seated in a chair with a control panel. The authority figure or experimenter stood next to the participant and gave instructions to the participant. The participant was told that in another room a different participant or the “learner” was seated. The authority figure read different words aloud and waited for an answer from the learner.
If the learner failed to choose the right answer, the participant was told that an electric shock would be administered to the learner. What the participant did not know was that the learner was part of the experiment and was a trained actor. The startling findings of the study were how easily the participant was willing to listen to instructions from the authority figure to shock the learner.
Even when the participant protested to shocking the learner, the authority figure is able to persuade the participant to administer the shocks. When the learner was supposedly shocked, the learner yelled out that he had a heart condition and begged the shocks to stop. The participant hesitated to administer the shock, but continued regardless because of the authority figure’s persuasion.
Although this study could not be replicated because of ethical reasons, there is a lot to be gained from the behavior observed during the study. The emotional strain placed on the participant would not be accepted today by an internal review board. The participant was deceived during the experiment and typically this is not seen as ethical research by today’s standards. It is not clear whether or not the participant was briefed after the completion of the study.
What can we learn from this study? In organization settings for example, Milgram’s experiment may indicate how easily employees can be persuaded to conform to other’s opinions. I see the experiment as a realization as to the power authority and leaders of an organization possess. There is often a deep fear for employees not doing as told by leaders in organizational settings. Many employees do as they are told to avoid any form of retribution.
A great example of employees conforming to authority instructions comes from the bankruptcy and fraud of Enron. In interviews, employees indicate that although they knew the actions were illegal and unethical, they followed what the leaders were telling employees to do. Very few employees spoke up because in the face of authority figures, employees conformed to what they were told.
Leaders in organizations must use their position with great caution. Power can be abused if not used correctly and can have negative impacts on the entire organization. If employees do not feel comfortable speaking up against leader’s decisions then conformity is likely even in the face of illegal or unethical situations.
What are your thoughts? Does Milgram’s study have validity?