January 21, 2014 by

If you took a psychology class in high school or college, you studied the Milgram experiments.

In these experiments, a Teacher, the only one who didn’t know the true objective of the study, was told by an Experimenter to progressively shock a Learner with up to 450 volts of electricity when the Learner did not respond with correct answers. The Learner was never really shocked, although the Teacher thought he was because of the Learner’s (faked) cries, pleas, and protests. The Teacher was even led to believe that the Learner had a heart condition that could be exacerbated by the shocks.

The purpose of the Milgram experiments was to evaluate the extent to which someone would harm another person when told to do so by an authority figure. In this case, the authority was the Experimenter who wore a white lab coat and regularly told the Teacher (while the Teacher progressively shocked the Learner with more and more volts), “Once started, the experiment must go on,” or “Don’t worry, I will take 
full responsibility.”

What do you think? How many Teachers shocked the Learner to the fullest extent, even when the Teachers believed that the Learner had passed out from the shocks?

About two-thirds.

Approximately two out of three people continued to do what they were told, even though they believed that they were greatly harming another human being. Why?

Stanley Milgram believed that humans are hard-wired, in a way, to obey authority. Whoever the authority figure—our bosses, our teachers, our religious figures—we are psychologically disposed to obey.

When we apply Milgram’s experiment to the workplace, we gain a better understanding of why business people do bad things. Business people may behave unethically, not because they are greedy or evil, but because they are instructed to do so.

Even more fascinating is that one out of three Teachers refused to shock the Learners with up to 450 volts. Interestingly, there was a point in the study around 150 volts when a cluster of Teachers disobeyed the Experimenter. Why stop there?

The answer (Packer, 2008) is that it was at this point that the Learner would protest not only with cries of pain but with exclamations like, “I won’t be in this experiment anymore!” and “I refuse to go on!” This change in the Learner’s communication, from cries of pain to ones that express the moral concepts of rights, liberty, and freedom, allowed some Teachers to break away from the Experimenter’s authority, disengage from their role in the experiment, and reduce harm.

Let’s apply the previous conclusion to the workplace by making two points.

First, language and conversation affect our decision-making and actions (Werhane et. al., 2013). The language we use with our peers and subordinates can lull them into complacency or shock them into ethical behavior. So let’s be intentional about using moral words at work. And let’s start conversations about ethics every day by talking about current ethical issues and workplace situations.

Second, it is unlikely that the online compliance training that has swept corporate America will create the kinds of good behavior that leaders seek from their employees in the workplace. Granted, these practices are efficient and allow organizations to easily show that every employee has had ethics and compliance training. But without human interaction and discourse, there is no life to the education and we have yet to see proof that they create real behavioral impact.

Let’s continue to develop the strategies that shock us into ethics. Join with other Omaha business leaders who are at the front of a new ethics education model, creating city-level and organizational programs where well-crafted, face-to-face dialogue is positively affecting the minds and ethical behaviors of our workforce.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.

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