architects of our future

Stanford Prison Experiment

It has been generally thought in the popular press that the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that normal people act like sadistic guards when placed in a ‘prison-like’ environment. In this interview with Guy Kawasaki, Dr. Philip Zimbardo discusses his 1971 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.”

Our Structures Shape Us

Authority may drive us to do immoral things. German researchers have 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”.  But the societal/organizational structure seems to have been a primary factor, as stated 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.”

We may think we will do the right and proper thing, but perhaps we are deluding ourselves. 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.”

The statement that ‘First we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us’, has been attributed to Winston Churchill. It shows that we become the product of our shaped environment. Father John Culkin, in A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan, wrote that, “We become what we behold.
 We shape our tools 
and then our tools shape us.” This aligns with the McLuhans’ tetradic Laws of Media. How we organize as a society is just another human-created technology, or as Harold Stolovitch wrote, “Technology is the application of organized and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” 

Relatedness & Autonomy

The BBC and The British Psychological Society recreated the Stanford Prison Experiment in 2002. They concluded that “participants showed no ‘natural’ tendencies to slip helplessly” into the role of either guard or prisoner. Instead, many people began to relate to groups of other people, creating a tribe-like social identity.

“For all the twists and turns in the BBC study, there are two findings that are constant throughout. The first is that shared social identity creates social power, and where people are willing to deploy that power they become effective social agents who shape their own worlds. The second is that where people are unable to shape their world – either because they lack shared identity and hence power or because they have shared identity but fail to deploy the power that flows from it – they are liable to become despondent and open to alternative belief systems, however extreme they might be.” —ThePsychologist

‘Shared social identity’ is a strong influencer of human behaviour, as we know about the universal need for ‘relatedness’ according to self-determination theory. For example,“a lack of social identification led to disagreement and discord” amongst the guards, whereas “social identification led to agreement and mutual support” amongst the prisoners. Self Determination Theory also shows that we need autonomy over our actions. If we cannot shape our world, we may even want to make it worse, as shown in the British study.

After they had created a ‘Commune’ the participants actually decided to build a more tyrannical hierarchical structure, “So what started with our participants rejecting a relatively mild form of inequality had ended on the brink of an authoritarian world of their own making.” It seems that dysfunctional groups do not make good decisions but rather emotional ones.

Social Leadership

Leadership is not getting people to do things for you. It is not being in charge and making decisions. Real leadership, the only leadership anyone should aspire to, is making better human systems. We all must critically examine our structures and remember that they are temporary human constructs. These can be companies, non-profits, institutions, government agencies, or our families. Anything less than working on creating a better system for people is not leadership. It may be self-aggrandizement, vanity, or even custodial work, but it is not leadership.

Good leaders prepare for their departure. All that is left when they depart are the structures and systems they have helped put in place. The measure of a leader is their legacy. If they get a performance review, it should be given years after they leave. I often wonder how many of our current leaders would get a positive review in retrospect. Probably not very many, if 19 alumni of Harvard Business School who made it to the top, are any indication.

“A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that the company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable at least. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically.” –Henry Mintzberg

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the way things work in an organization. The problem may be the organizational model itself and it may be better to leave and create an alternative model than help keep a flawed one going. We are the architects of our future.

3 Responses to “architects of our future”

  1. François Lavallée

    This is one of the best articles on Leadership I have read in a long time. Succinct, clear, insightful …
    Reading this at 8:00 is such a nice way to start the day!
    Thanks Harold.

  2. Michael O'Neill

    Bravo, Harold. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    I’m curious about your thoughts on this, “It seems that dysfunctional groups do not make good decisions but rather emotional ones.”

    Is there really no room for emotion in good decisions? 🙂


    • Harold Jarche

      There definitely is, but it would be better used in a functioning community, rather than one like the Commune.


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