Poor Behaviour

Dysfunctional situations

It is easy to blame other people’s behaviour for poor performance:

  • He is uncooperative
  • She is selfish
  • He is incompetent
  • She is a bully
  • He is power crazed
  • She is rude

Poor behaviour causes all sorts of dysfunctional situations.  Doesn’t it?

The experiment

In 1971 Phillipe Zimbardo set up the Stanford prison experiment.  He put an ad in a local paper for students to take part in a two-week study.

Zimbardo recruited 24 subjects.  On the flip of a coin he designated them as either guards or prisoners.

Early one morning nine of the “prisoners” received visits from the local police force.  They were arrested, searched, handcuffed and led to a police car whilst their neighbours looked on.  The police took them to Stanford Prison. The prison was really a set of rooms in the Stanford University Psychology Department.

On arrival the prisoners where  strip searched. They were then given a numbered gown or “dress” to wear, complete with rubber sandals and a chain on their ankle.  Finally they were forced to wear a cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking.  According to Zimbardo “Real male prisoners don’t wear dresses, but real male prisoners, we have learned, do feel humiliated, do feel emasculated, and we thought we could produce the same effects very quickly by putting men in a dress without any underclothes.”

The guards were dressed to look like the prison guard in the movie “Cool Hand Luke”. They had khaki uniforms, whistles, batons and mirrored sunglasses.

The experimenters didn’t provide any training for the guards. The were allowed to do what ever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison.  They were, however, warned of the seriousness of the situation and that they were undertaking a hazardous role.

Prison life

Over the following week both the guards and prisoners changed their behaviour.

The Guards became authoritative and dictatorial. They broke the prisoners into small groups, allowing some prisoners privileges whilst confining others.  Every aspect of the prisoners’ lives fell under the total and arbitrary control of the guards.  They put them into solitary confinement, censored their mail and forced them to defecate in buckets.

The prisoners became submissive, introducing themselves to outsiders by their number not their name.  They showed complete conformity and compliance with the guards’ requests.

The stress was so much that two of the prisoners had breakdowns.


The experiment was set to run for 2 weeks. Dr Zimbardo stopped it after only 6 days when an external researcher was brought in to conduct interviews.  She saw guards marching prisoners to the toilet in chains with bags over their heads.  She was outraged by the situation exclaiming that it was “terrible what you are doing to these boys!”

Interestingly she was the only one of fifty or so external visitors to the experiment who objected. Parents, lawyers and a priest had all vistied the prison without comment.  Dr Zimbardo was playing the role of Prison Governor.  Even he became so engrossed by what was going on that he failed to see how badly the guards were treating the prisoners.

You can read a full account of the experiment here.

Does the behaviour cause the situation or the situation cause the behaviour?

It isn’t peoples’ behaviour that drives poor outcomes. Behaviour is a reaction to the situation that people find themselves in. It may contribute to a situation that is spiralling out of control, but it isn’t the seed. If you want to change performance it is pointless changing the people, people only react.

Behaviour is a consequence, not a reason.

Change the situation, (systems, processes, policies) not the people.

Bad behaviour and irrational decisions are almost always caused by fear. If you want to change the behaviour, address the fear ~ Seth Godin

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Image by Flood G.

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