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Why good people do bad things

The bizarre and terrible events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused social psychologist Philip Zimbardo to reexamine the famous and controversial prison experiment he conducted at Stanford in 1971.

James O’Toole & Warren Bennis | Print Edition: December 13, 2009

The bizarre and terrible events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused social psychologist Philip Zimbardo to reexamine the famous and controversial prison experiment he conducted at Stanford in 1971. In The Lucifer Effect, he reviews how the experiment got out of hand: Young men had been assigned to play the roles of guards and inmates in an ersatz jail in the basement of a campus building, but the participants took their playacting so seriously that the scheduled twoweek experiment had to be aborted at midpoint, after the student guards had begun to psychologically and physically abuse the student prisoners.

Zimbardo reanalyses the experiment, along with the horrors that occurred in Nazi concentration camps, My Lai, Jonestown, and Rwanda (and currently are happening in Darfur), in light of two decades of social psychological research. He concludes that almost all of us are susceptible to being drawn over to the dark side, because human behaviour is determined more by situational forces and group dynamics than by our inherent nature. Thus it is horribly easy to create situations and systems in which good people cannot resist the temptation to do bad things. But, on a more hopeful note, we can just as readily design systems that lead to virtuous behaviour.

Zimbardo’s conclusion illuminates the roots of unethical corporate behaviour better than most published analyses of that topic. He demonstrates that ethical problems in organisations originate not with “a few bad apples” but with the “barrel makers”—the leaders who, wittingly or not, create and maintain the systems in which participants are encouraged to do wrong. The managerial implications are enormous. Instead of wasting millions of dollars on ethics courses designed to exhort employees to be good, it would be far more effective to create corporate cultures in which people are rewarded for doing good things.

What’s more, Zimbardo’s findings shed light on the common organisational problems of peer pressure and the reluctance to speak truth to power. In all groups, there’s a powerful desire to belong. Everybody wants to be liked, to be part of the “family.” Hence, the pressure to conform in organisations is almost irresistible. And nobody wants to be the skunk at the party, the one who tells the boss that his fly is open or that she has peanut butter on her chin. These same organisational forces hamper a company’s capacity to innovate, solve problems, achieve goals, meet challenges, and compete.

The only effective antidote is to create an unimpeded flow of information and an organisational climate in which no one fears the consequences of speaking up. By broadening the perspectives that leaders consider, transparency deters groupthink. But its real value is that it keeps the leaders of organisations honest with others and, perhaps more important, honest with themselves.

James O’Toole is the Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, and Warren Bennis is University Professor at the University of Southern California. Excerpted from an article “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor”, published in Harvard Business Review, June 2009. All rights reserved.

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