What is the One Thing Your Staff Won’t Tell You?

Imagine that you saw a newspaper advert.  It said that the psychology department at your local university was running a “memory study” and that it wanted paid volunteers for an hour-long experiment

You were having a slack morning so you decided to give it a go

At the laboratory you met two men; one, the research scientist dressed in his white coat the other, a volunteer just like you. The scientist explained that the experiment was about the effects of pain on memory.  He had asked the other volunteer to memorise some word sequences, he was the learner. Your job was the teacher. Your job was to check that the learner got the sequences right, if not you were to punish him with an electric shock. The more he got wrong the more intense the electric shock

The test began and after a while the learner got an answer wrong. You pushed a button and a mild electric shock was delivered. The learner winced a little

Gradually the experiment continued and the voltage increased:

  • At 100 volts the learner grunted audibly
  • At 120 volts he admitted it was starting to hurt
  • At 150 volts the learner wanted to stop the experiment

But all the time the research scientist told you to continue:

“there won’t be any lasting tissue damage”

At 200 volts the learner screamed and when you reached 300 volts the learner refused to answer the questions any more.

The scientist told you to assume silence was an incorrect answer and you should continue to administer the electric shocks

The learner screamed, kicked, pleaded for mercy, right the way up to 450 volts

Which is when the research scientist finally told you to stop

A nasty little story. Of course it could never happen

But it did

In 1963 at Yale University Stanley Milgram ran a set of experiments that did exactly this.  There was a slight twist.  Stanley wasn’t investigating the effect of pain on memory. The electric shocks were fake and the “learner” was an actor. What he was really investigating was how people responded to authority figures (or people dressed in white lab coats)

He found that two-thirds of the “teachers” carried on administering shocks right the way up to 450 volts, regardless of how much the “learner screamed for mercy”.  In the absence of the “research scientist” however the “teachers” stopped administering the shocks very early on

The study was re run in 2002. It showed exactly the same findings

Are you a Manager?  An Authority Figure?

People will do exactly what their managers tell them to do. They will follow processes that make no sense, they will strive to hit targets which they know are badly thought through. They will do exactly what their leaders ask them to do. No matter how inappropriate, stupid, foolish, or dumb

We can’t possibly understand all the complexity of the work that people in our teams do, yet our instinctive reaction is to manage from our desks, look at the numbers, instigate targets and enforce compliance.  Our staff will carry on doing what we ask, no matter how blindingly stupid

They won’t question it. They do what the boss says.  Maybe we should get out of our offices and go and check that what we have asked them to do is sensible

Because they won’t tell us if it’s not

Mad Scientist

Read another opinion

Image by nessman


  1. Hi James,
    Sage advice and reminds me of Management by Wandering Around (MBWA), a management practice that was heralded in the 80s but seems to have been forgotten despite the huge impact it can have on performance, initiative and morale.

    Guess we get too stuck behind our own stuff or is it that we are too scared to put ourselves out there?


  2. Maz Iqbal says:

    Hello James

    Add the insight that Zimbardo generated through his infamous Stanford prison experiments into the Miligram mix and you then have something to really think about.

    Milligram shows the blind obedience to authority. Zimbardo shows how quickly you can split people who are the same into two groups, give one group power over the other then sit back and see how quickly the powerful group will exploit/ abuse the weaker group.

    Personally, I do not know which frightened/disgusted me more. What is really frightening is that both tendencies are present at the same time. Some of the guards in the Stanford experiments went along with what they knew and felt was inhuman treatment of the ‘prisoners’. Why? Deference to the authority of the ‘evil guards’.



  1. […] James Lawther speaks to the same point in his post: What is the One Thing Your Staff Wont Tell You? […]

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