One of the most famous psychology experiments of all time is Stanley Milgram’s eponymous work that tested our willingness to obey authority. I’m sure you’re familiar with both the experiment and the finding that we are willing to administer seemingly extreme punishments to other people, providing we believe that to be what the ‘authorities’ want.
The experiment is often used to illustrate the difficulties we face in standing up to authority or going against the grain, which when talking about innovation can be terminal to any efforts to do new things.
That the experiment began just a few months after the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem only added to its power.
Perhaps less known is a follow-up study undertaken by Milgram, called Experiment 17, which does at least shed a slightly more optimistic light on affairs than his original work.
Standing up to be counted
The experiment saw a couple of actors added to the mix to pose as people working alongside the volunteers. In other words, rather than one person alone in the room to administer the punishments, there were now three.
The experiment revealed that the volunteers were much more likely to stand up to authority if just one of the actors stood up and said no. Whereas in the original experiment around 66% of volunteers administered the punishment and followed orders, this plummeted to just 10% when a single voice of dissent was raised.
The thing is, going against the grain is usually really hard. To innovate often requires the individual to stand alone, often against quite significant foes, in order to get their ideas and thoughts out there. It’s a tough job, especially as so many of our organizations are set up with efficiency in mind, so the status quo is very much what they’re looking to protect.
It was interesting therefore to read a recent study published by the University of Colorado, Boulder, in which they explore the kind of thoughts and deliberations we go through before engaging in a courageous act.
It found that when deciding on whether to stick our heads above the parapet, we first attempt to understand how personally responsible we are for the thing we’re concerned about. We also try and gauge our personal level of attachment to the issue, and the power we have to do something about it.
Once these have been established, the study then suggests that people begin weighing up the costs involved of acting courageously. They’ll begin assessing things like their job security and professional relationships. The interesting thing is that most people tend to progress with their courageous act despite these costs, which is pleasing to hear.
“What’s surprising about the findings is that they tell us courage is not just a personality trait, it’s a behavior that can be learned,” the authors say. “Also, courage is very social. You compare yourself with the people around you and ask, ‘Do I identify with the victim, or am I more powerful than the other people?’”
GM’s former president Alfred P. Sloan Jr. famously attempted to normalize dissent in the company. During a meeting he was said to have concluded matters by asking the executives present if they were in agreement with him. They all nodded. Rather than accepting that however, he pushed back. “Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
Going against the grain can be hard, but it can be done if you give that radical some allies, and who better than the boss themselves?