Why We Knowingly Do Wrong Things

What do you do when upper management or “policy” tells you to do something you know is the wrong thing to do?

This happens in the workplace daily… in some workplaces, hourly. Have you ever had to choose between what you’ve been told to do and your own moral, intuitive or intellectual compass?

… So …? Which one won?

If you are like 2/3 to 3/4 of the other decent human beings on the planet, then most often you did what you were told. You might have been stressed while doing it and felt remorse later, but ultimately you deferred to authority.

Watch this video of a repeat experiment testing the 1961 findings of Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram. Especially note the 19 year old student’s reaction… it’s chilling!

People shift responsibility for their actions onto the person in authority, NOT to save their jobs (these people were only given a small bit of money. They were doing this in the name of helping science), NOT to help themselves (there was no personal reward in continuing, nor personal consequence in stopping), but out of a strong trust in authority, even when that authority appears to be wrong. Age, race, income, society – none of us is immune. It takes great effort to go against what you are told. It is a bold and stressful move to say “No”.

Leadership is a HUGE responsibility, especially middle management, as they are what separates the workers from the people making the rules. You can’t blame your people for not using their heads when they believe they are simply following orders. At the same time, you need to fight to follow your best judgement when you feel what you are being told to do is wrong. If 2/3 to 3/4 of all participants in this experiment (and others like it over the years, all around the planet) would knowingly, under orders, deliver a lethal electric shock to an innocent person, how many more would cut essentials, terminate a great employee, rip off a customer or “just get it done; no one will know the difference.”?

Sobering thoughts in a sobering month, but vital to think about if we are ever going truly succeed.