“How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.’’ Professor Philip G Zimbardo (Emeritus Professor at Stanford University)
I first came across The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Professor Zimbardo in 2008 when I was studying towards my MA in human resources. Its main purpose was to explore the cognitive dissonance theory (dealing with attitudes/beliefs/thoughts, which are inconsistent with one’s existing set) and the power of authority.
The experiment was conducted in the basement of Jordan Hall at the Stanford University psychology building and consisted of 24 participants, of which 12 were assigned the role of a prisoner, and the other 12 the role of a guard. Professor Zimbardo took on a role of a superintendent allowing for the fast growing abuse and dominance to escalate, which ended abruptly on day six preventing the guards from using a physical abuse behaviour (the guards were encouraged to step boundaries, which lead to emotional trauma and resulted in five prisoners leaving the experiment almost right at the start of it).
The experiment concluded that the role of the authority is subjective and the human behaviour is closely linked to a particular environment it is exposed to. It showed that the situation, rather than the individual personal characteristics (attitudes/beliefs/thoughts) were the driving force behind specific behaviour.
Could this experiment be linked to behaviours displayed within the corporate world?
Couple of years ago, one of my friends told me a story of what had once happened to her. At the time, she was responsible for coordinating company’s recruitment agenda, including managing relationships with the headhunters and direct candidates. On one occasion, she refused the CEO’s request to reschedule an interview with one of the candidates who was applying for a senior position within the company. They entered into a heated exchange of words in front of the entire office, which went something along these lines:
Her: I’m sorry but I will not ask the candidate to reschedule this interview with you again as we have done it three times already, which in itself is unusual and disrespectful of everyone’s time.
CEO: I told you I am unable to see them and you have to do it.
Her: I’m sorry but I won’t do it, it is an hour of your time and you both had had it in your diaries for a long time now.
CEO: I said you do it and you will do it.
Her: Again, I’m sorry but I won’t.
CEO: You work for me and I tell you to do it!
Her: I don’t work for you and I will not do it.
The CEO then stormed off and my friend was asked to attend a meeting with him and the HR Director (which she reported into at the time) the next morning. It is important to say that up until that moment, the relationship between the two of them had been sound. In summary, she was forced to apologise to the CEO, follow his instructions and finally given a written warning for committing a gross misconduct. She then asked if the CEO was also being given a reprimand for mistreating her in front of her colleagues, but the answer she heard back was negative. She stood her ground and resigned from her position there and then, and left the company behind after serving her notice.
So is the ‘my way or the high way’ approach a common practice in the workplace and what happens when power and authority is abused at the cost of genuine leadership?
Power is the possession and control of authority, which in itself is often the primary source of authority. Managing (or ruling!) by the sole use of power is impactful, but also very short lived. In our example, the CEO made a decision and the HR Director had the authority to enforce it – as a result of their actions, they both lost a good employee. The truth is that most managers are in the position of authority, what differs is how they use it, i.e. how they go about telling you what to do. The historic bureaucratic organisational structure, whereby duties and responsibilities are delegated to a position holder, has been steadily declining and gradually replaced by the more fluid matrix and team-based structures. This consequently has led to a development of a more considered style of management.
Leadership, therefore, is about painting a vision for others to follow, despite the difficulties they may occur along the way. A good leader is also focused on having an impact on someone’s character and their development, through the facilitation of their influencing capabilities. It’s about leading the way by displaying actions of commitment and integrity, and therefore building a strong group of followers. As Fredrik Arnander said in his book ‘we are all leaders, leadership is not a position, it is a mind-set’.
Power, which can be formal (CEO) or informal (CEO’s Assistant guarding the access to their schedule, for example), is therefore a fairly abstract concept. A leader and someone in authority can have power as well, what’s important is how they use it, i.e. in a positive or negative way.
In my experience, the key to successful leadership is to maintain a close link to the purpose, to the ‘why’. It is about applying a holistic approach to managing progress through reconnecting with organisational behaviours, purpose and values. Overusing authority risks losing legitimacy and respect in favour of creating (at all cost) a new organisational order. Striking the balance is possible and can be achieved by managing regular reviews and implementing necessary adjustments, after all, nothing ever stands still.
What could had happened in The Stanford Prison Experiment if the overall aim was not to recreate the prison’s punishing environment, but to work on rehabilitating the prisoners preparing them for re-entering the society? Would the guards be willing to work differently with another brief? And what if we were to swap the roles between guards and prisoners half way through the experiment, would the latter seek revenge on the aggressive guards?
Going back to my friend’s example, could her response be different to another approach, i.e. the CEO providing her with more background information and stepping into her shoes before making the request? Or going further, predicting the possible response from the candidate, and coaching her on handling the conversations with them? Maintaining strong corporate reputation is far more complex challenge than getting ahead of the competition.
Finally, is it feasible to learn how to be a good leader? I believe that your natural personality is helpful but simply not enough. Only through an on-going development aimed at boosting your skills can gain you the necessary confidence for the framework, knowledge and support that is needed for being a truly inspirational leader. In today’s world nobody can afford to stop learning.