Moral values & organizational architecture

Why do people do bad things? Is it because they have to? Here is Gary Stager discussing a re-enactment of the famous Milgram Experiment:

One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phony. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.

In this interview with Guy Kawasaki, Dr. Philip Zimardo discusses the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where students played their roles as guards or prisoners and abuses started within 24 hours:

But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guards crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now “dangerous prisoners”. From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.

German researchers have recently released horrendous stories of what went on with regular soldiers during the Second World War. As der Spiegel notes: “Newly published conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the Allies, reveal horrifying details of violence against civilians, rape and genocide”.

In this report from Science News we learn that moral talk is cheap:

When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.

But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed. A lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash.

It seem it’s not just authority, but money (from which we can derive a form of authority) that may drive us to do immoral things.

Part of the answer lies in the concluding paragraph of the der Spiegel article:

The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible — even absolute evil.

I have often quoted Winston Churchill, and it’s most appropriate here – “First we shape our structures and then our structures shape us”.

Adding new programs, such as diversity training, will not address structural issues. Organizational architecture, which should be a blend of the best from our management disciplines and neuro-sciences, is what’s really needed. My observations over several decades show that most people work within structures without really thinking about them. For our future, and our humanity, we need to change this. What kind of foundation is your organization built upon?

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