Saying no. Is this your secret weapon at work?

A view of office buildings in the central business district in Singapore

Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Paolo Gallo
Adjunct Professor Bocconi University, Founder Compass Consulting, Executive Coach
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In 1956, William White wrote a book called “The Organization Man". It was a portrait of America that became a manifesto for the need to overturn the prevailing, conformist bureaucracy. White argued that individualism was systematically stifled in US organizations, creating a culture of complacency, flattery, fear and faceless collectivism. This was 60 years ago: but has anything changed? Are we getting better, or worse?

Six years after the publication of White’s book, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment that would send shockwaves far beyond the academic world. He wanted to explore a question: if a person with authority asked an ordinary individual to give an electric shock to another person, what would that individual do?

When normal people dole out electric shocks

The experiment used volunteers to play the role of "teachers", supervised by "researchers" in white coats, who were asked to give "students" electric shocks of increasing intensity if they gave the wrong answers to test questions. Although the electric shocks were fictitious, and the "students" were actors knowingly playing a part, the "teachers" were not aware of this.

Whenever the “teachers” showed qualms about administering these shocks, the “researchers” would push them on, with scripted phrases: "Go on, please", "The experiment requires that you continue," "It is important that you carry on " "You have no choice: you must go on." In 65% of cases, the "teachers" continued with shocks that would have posed a real danger to the “students”. At the end of the experiment, 84% of "teachers" reported that they were happy to have have participated in the experiment. Milgram paused and asked: How is it that people considered normal could become so sadistic, so quickly? According to the Yale study, the factors behind obedience vary, but in general the majority of people tend to obey in the presence of pressure exerted by a person or by a group with authority or even perceived authority. Blind Obedience to authority quickly becomes scary.

Are you a “phrog”?

In 1977, Jerry B. Harvey, professor of Management at George Washington University, picked up the same idea with an amazingly fun and powerful article that should be compulsory reading. Titling his essay "Organizations as Phrog farms,” Harvey uses what appears to be a spelling mistake to coin a term for a dehumanising process: the transformation of individuals into unthinking phrogs, quick to conform and to display blind obedience to authority.

“Phrog is spelled with a ph because phrogs don't like to be known as frogs, and they try to hide their phroginess from themselves and others by transparent means. In short, once one has been transformed into a phrog, one likes to attempt to hide that fact. For one who has been a person, it's a great come-down to be a phrog.”

For example, in many organizations it is much more important to follow the chain of command than to use your common sense and act in a mature and sensible fashion. In any organization, it’s considered a deadly sin to talk directly to the head of your boss, without the latter knowing about it. This is part of a culture of deference and flattery which is damaging. I can’t resist quoting Harvey’s tongue-in-cheek anecdote:

“There is a myth on the part of phrogs that kissing another phrog turns that phrog into a prince. I think it should be noted that, in general, kissing a phrog only produces skin irritations. For those who decide to kiss anyway, I think they should also realize that, in all that fog, it is very difficult to determine which way a phrog is facing.”

He goes on to warn against the ruthless culture of seeking to ensnare your rivals at work:

“Phrogs frequently try to set traps for one another. Phrog traps have a peculiar quality because they catch only the phrogs who set them. Stated differently, if you have to set a phrog trap, there is no need to do so. You are already in it.”

The link between flattery and power

More recently, in his book "Power: why some people have it and some don't," Jeffrey Pfeffer examines the strong correlation between adulation and power. CEOs have a strong preference for putting loyalists in senior positions, regardless of their credential or past achievements. Have you noticed something similar in your organization?

For a healthy, successful working culture, people need to be able to make their own decisions and challenge assumptions. We need to move far beyond simply conforming to authority.

As its most serious, the stock excuse of obeying orders imposed from above crops up in everything from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals to modern-day corruption cases. Whatever the context, whenever humanly possible, we must refuse to abdicate our moral judgement or critical faculties.

As the holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

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