Complete this sentence: “My boss is a ...” Did you say “role model”? Or “true leader”? No. When you start searching the Internet for “My boss is a...,” the most common completions are “bully,” “idiot,” “jerk,” “liar,” “psycho,” “moron,” and some other words that aren’t very nice.
Every day, millions of people are subjected to work situations that rob them of control and often their dignity. Maybe it’s a boss who mistreats you. Or rules that tell you what to do and when to do it. Or management systems that force you to compete with colleagues, bringing out the worst in human behavior.
Here’s why your boss is a jerk - and how you can fight back.
The perils of obedience
In July, 1961, three months after Adolf Eichmann went on trial for Nazi war crimes, the psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments on obedience to authority figures. Milgram’s famous for a wide range of experiments, but this was surely his most controversial.
There are 3 roles in the experiment: the Teacher, the Learner, and the Experimenter. Volunteer subjects act as the The Teacher. They sit in front of a panel with 30 switches labeled with increasing voltages, from 15 to 450 volts. The Learner (who, unbeknownst to the subject, is a confederate of the Experimenter) is in another room and has to answer questions. When the Learner doesn’t get an answer right, the Teacher is supposed to deliver a higher shock.
There are different variations of the experiment but, in all of them, the Teacher can hear the distress of the Learner as the shocks grow more intense. If a Teacher objects, dismayed at the distress they're causing, the Experimenter tells them to continue. Actual quotes from these exchanges are chilling.
Teacher: But he’s hollering. He can’t stand it. What’s going to happen to him?
Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of-fact): The experiment requires that you continue, Teacher...
Learner (yelling): Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me! (Teacher looks at Experimenter.)
Experimenter: Continue please.
How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.”
The actual answer was 600 times that. More than 60% of the subjects obeyed the Experimenter till the very end. People refused to believe the results. They pointed out flaws in the experiment. But, 35 years later, a researcher reviewed experiments that tried to replicate Milgram’s work over the prior decades. He found the percentage of participants prepared to inflict the highest voltages was consistently between 61–66 percent. Here was his own conclusion:
"What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience."
Milgram at work
To get a feel for what these subjects went through (and for a glimpse back into the 1970s), watch “The Tenth Level,” a dramatization of the experiments starring none other than William Shatner as Milgram. I saw this movie when I was 11 years old and it's stuck with me till this day.
While Milgram was interested in Nazis, the parallels to modern-day work are clear. Ordinary people, when placed in management, do things to employees they’d never do to friends or family. When I managed large organizations, I did it, too. Drawing up layoff lists. Denying promotions. Reviewing performance by rating people on a curve. Management routinely meant doing things that didn’t seem right.
Wait, what if I don’t know them well? What if they did everything they could but failed due to circumstances beyond their control? What if we didn’t provide the right resources to even make success possible?
The experiment required that I continue, and I did.
What can you do?
It’s not just bosses that are trained. It’s the employees, too. In the Five Monkeys Experiment, for example, we saw how employees can actually aid and abet the experimenter, reinforcing bad behaviors even though they're harmful for the group and the individuals in it.
What can you do when you’re trapped in a malevolent experiment? Instead of just accepting the work environment you happen to be placed in, you can now change it in two ways.
Individually, you can gain more control over the system by working out loud. By making your work visible and getting public feedback on it, you’ll make it more difficult for your manager to unfairly assess your work. It will also help you expand and deepen your network, enabling you to discover other possibilities as you come into contact with more managers in your own firm and elsewhere.
As a group, you can connect mistreated people and their experiences to show the scale of a problem. Think of it as change.org at work. A private complaint of a single employee can be easy to dismiss. It’s a completely different matter when there are 1000 such complaints and the people making them are online, connected, and able to organize.
You don’t have to take it any more. Milgram’s Experimenter and all the Teachers who volunteered could only do what they did because they were in a closed room. When you work in an open, connected way, it changes everything.