Conversations about workplace values have undergone significant changes over the last decade. Words such as vulnerability, authenticity, and courage have become more commonplace in the professional space. While this emotion-focused vernacular is now less stigmatized in the workplace, it requires more than just a look at the list of corporate’s values to understand how we can effectively implement these values in our day-to-day business lives and relationships.
With that in mind, let’s explore a well-known study about unquestioned compliance and moments of courage:
Complying with authority
Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment, even if we don’t know it by name (guilty!). Here is a quick refresher for those who don’t recall the details of the study. The Milgram experiment had test participants administer shocks to a human recipient, and the voltage slowly increased to 450 volts. The test participants, who were controlling the voltage, were encouraged to ignore the recipient’s protests or yells of pain. What the test participants did not realize was that the shocks were fake and the recipient was an actor. Although the test participants were told that the test was to measure how pain could increase efficiency in learning, that wasn’t the focus of the study. In reality, it was to determine how many people would comply and continue to administer dangerous shocks simply because an authority figure ordered them to do so. The answer: a scary amount of people are passively compliant. In this experiment, 65% showed total (although mostly hesitant) obedience to the experimenter and went all the way to the 450-volt shock level.
Observing courage being modeled
Although I had previously heard of the Milgram experiment, I learned that there were a few variations. One of these involved a test participant witnessing another actor playing the role of shock administer, either being compliant or resisting authority prior to the test participant administering shocks. The experimenters found that 92% of the test participant were compliant when they witnessed compliance, and 90% resisted when they witnessed resistance. This demonstrated the willingness of people to stand against authorities, but also that people can also struggle to realize that resistance is an option. At times, we can lose sight of our autonomy in the face of another’s authority.
As a total Harry Potter nerd, when I heard about this new experiment variation, it immediately brought to mind a line from Neville Longbottom in the seventh book. After being tortured multiple times for rebelling against authority, he said, “The thing is, it helps when people stand up to them. It gives everyone hope. I used to notice it when you did it, Harry.”
While the Harry Potter series is a work of fiction, this scenario clearly demonstrates the contagiousness of courage and how it can inspire others to speak out even when facing harsh consequences. Neville, in this brief quote, acknowledges Harry’s previously modeled courage by resisting authority. And because of that example, Neville went on to face greater hardships than Harry for rebelling, in turn inspiring many other students. And while, thankfully, none of us risk torture at work because of our divergent ideas, we do have the opportunity to risk discomfort and inspire courage in those around us. Each courageous moment creates a stronger and healthier workplace for everyone.
As we draw to a close, let me pose this question: How is courage being modeled at your workplace? Can you think of colleagues who have shown courage by admitting mistakes or advocating for others, even perhaps when doing so may have felt uncomfortable in that moment or risked consequences? Have you experienced similar situations when you considered sharing your voice but didn’t know whether you should?
Instead of letting these opportunities for courageousness pass us by without giving them further thought, let’s challenge ourselves. Perhaps today we acted out of fear, but each moment is a new opportunity. We can reconsider our past actions, learn from them, and move forward choosing courage.