One of the most thought-provoking psychological experiments ever, took place 50 year’s ago. Stanley Milgram* tried to understand why ordinary and decent people could be driven to commit the most atrocious acts. About 2/3 of the participants in his experiment pulled every one of the thirty shock switches up to the life endangering ‘450 V’ to punish mistakes. The so-called victims screamed and begged to stop. It didn’t matter. Sex, age, educational level, race… didn’t make a difference.
The explanation was clear: the participants did what the experiment leader asked them to do. They were obedient. They were in shock, suffered severely, wanted to stop. But they went on, as long as the experiment leader asked them to do so. And the white coat of the authority figure helped. Without the white coat, people were less obedient. The experiment proved the power of authority as an important source of social influence (Cialdini, 2007**).
It makes sense to be obedient to figures of authority. Society wouldn’t achieve such degrees of complexity and order if we wouldn’t respect blindly policemen, lawyers, teachers, doctors a.s.o. It’s one of the essential learnings of our childhood. “Why do I have to do that?” “Because I’m your parent!” And in professional organisations ‘authority’ is called ‘management’. Thanks to Frederick Taylor who invented scientific management 100 years ago.
Authority uses formal symbols to trigger compliance: uniforms, titles and other trappings. Experiments show that different titles lead to different height estimations. The pecking order in large and/or bureaucratic organisations can easily be deduced from job titles. And in many organisations you don’t have ‘voice’ if you don’t have the authority or the symbols that go with it.
Authority is necessary. At the same time, and certainly in large organisations the negative side effects are a real concern. In an experiment 95 % of the nurses complied unhesitatingly with the order to give a patently improper drug. The ‘doctor’ ordered so, and they stopped thinking… Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of Electrabel shared the same concern with me during a leadership interview: “I would like my employees to think in more independent way.”
This explains the call for leadership in many organisations. It’s the call for less followership, less ‘formal authority’ and more autonomous creative and strategic action. It’s the only way to deal with continuous turbulence and highly individualized demands from customers. Toon Bossuyt, CEO Boss Paints, said it like this during a leadership interview: “with each generation we learn to handle our growing freedom better and therefore become more critical for pure formal authority.” This evolution makes mastership and expertise as natural, informal forms of authority more important in today’s organisations.
** CIALDINI, Robert (2007). The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins publishers, 320 p.