The Problem with Authority

The Problem with Authority

In a 1966 experiment, 22 nurses were unwittingly part of an experiment to test obedience to figures of authority.  There were three ‘rules’ that the nurses knew they must obey when administering drugs to patients.

  1. They must not accept instructions over the phone.
  2. They must not exceed the limit stated on the box.
  3. The drug must be listed in the ward stock list.

The (not real) Dr Smith phones the nurse, introduces himself and asks the nurse to check for the drug Astroten – which was not on the ward stock list.  They are told to administer double the limit on the box, and Dr Smith advised that he was terribly busy and would sign the authorisation later when he would be in the ward.

Administering the drug would mean breaking all three rules.

21 out of 22 nurses were willing to do that citing that they were unwilling to question the ‘authority’ of the doctor.

In another experiment by Stanley Milgram, participants were willing to administer significant and increasing electrical shocks to ‘actors’ despite being distraught and stressed, simply because the man in the white coat told them to.

Whilst socially, we are probably a little more willing to challenge authority than in the 1960’s, this psychological phenomenon is still a significant part of our DNA and can inhibit quality conversation, quality decisions, and quality problem-solving.

Traditional perceptions of authority inhibit the truth.

One valid strategy to lessening this negative impact of traditional authority is a bottom-up approach: to focus on giving employees and team members the skills and confidence to have those conversations, but unless the figure of authority (in most cases, the team leader) gives continued and express permission for this to occur, it is unlikely that any employee or team member who is even slightly concerned about the possible negative consequences of challenging the leader (emotional reaction, impact on performance rating, embarrassment or humiliation, rejection…) will speak up or challenge or refuse to act.

This issue must also be tackled from top down. Leaders must understand that every word, tone, and behaviour has a significant and long-lasting effect on those who recognize their position of authority. The brain’s trigger response to fear is quick and significant – in fact 5 times the significance of a reward trigger. And protecting ourselves is still, with our relatively primitive brains, important enough for us to defy and bias our logical reasoning and decision-making in favour of a perceived protective behaviour.

In other words, we may be quite willing to lie, cheat and hurt others in order to protect our own physical or social safety.

Teaching leaders about the nuances of human motivation, and the workings of the human brain provides them with a new and useful filter with which to communicate and engage others. Leaders MUST begin to see their role in organisations to amplify the human awesomeness of others, rather than focusing on their own pursuit of awesomeness.

Here are three things to think about if you are in a position of authority.

  1. Aim to NEVER put another human being in the position of having to make the choice between personal safety and doing the right thing. You should be present and aware enough to know when this is happening. If people are lying to you our of fear, that is your fault. 
  2. Never stop working to build trusting, honest and open relationships with your team and colleagues. Get to know them. Be humble and do more asking and listening than talking. Learn to have powerful and useful conversations. 
  3. Give your team and colleagues permission to challenge you.  Statements like “I don’t have all the answers, I’m keen to hear your perspectives”, or “Please don’t be afraid to disagree with me – we need all the possibilities on the table”, or “Don’t try to make me like you, try to make me think!”  And this can’t just happen once.  Every meeting, every week – find a way to openly invite and appreciate honest and challenging feedback and ideas.

(detailed here:


Have a great day!


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