The man with the White Coat

The man with the White Coat

How we “wear” our authority – and the power and influence we have – will affect other people more than we realise

At the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, Nazi General Adolf Eichmann pleaded not guilty for his role in genocide during the Second World War. He defended his actions as merely “following the orders of his superiors”.

Professor Stanley Milgram was curious to see if Germans were more inclined to follow orders than other population groups, or if there was a larger human dynamic at play. The implications of his research continue to astound me.

In 1961, Milgram placed an advert in a newspaper offering people four United States dollars to take part in an experiment. Participants were told that the experiment investigated the impact of punishment on learning.

In every case study there were two volunteers, one for the role of the teacher and the other the learner. The teacher would read a set of words and the learner had to select the appropriate corresponding word.

The teacher would first read all the matching word pairs so the learner could learn them. Afterwards, the teacher would read the first word followed by four possible options. For example; blue followed by: sky, ink, box, lamp.

This was when it became interesting; the learner had electrodes fastened to his arm, which appeared to be connected to an electric generator. This machine had 30 switches starting at 15 volts with 15-volt increments up to 450 volts.

The descriptions ranged from “slight shock” at 15 volts to “extreme intensity shock” at 315 volts and only “XXX” after 420 volts. Each time the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was required to administer an electric shock. With each incorrect answer, the teacher would increase the voltage by 15 volts.

Before the experiment commenced, the teacher received a mild shock in order to have a sense of the intensity of pain. In many of the cases, the learner mentioned that he had a heart condition. Then they went to the adjoining room so the teacher was seperated from the learner.

What the teacher did not know was that the learner was not a volunteer, but actually part of the research team; the learner was never strapped to the generator; and, for the sake of the experiment, the learner would deliberately answer incorrectly.

The learner’s responses were also pre-recorded, so at 75 volts there were grunts of discomfort and at 120 volts shouts of pain. When they reached 150 volts, the learner would cry out that he no longer wanted to participate.

The learner began to scream in agony at 165 volts, and by the time they got to 195 volts, he started referring to his heart condition. Again, all of this was rehearsed, but the teacher was not aware of this.

With each increase in voltage, the learner would yell that he could no longer endure the pain and begged to be let go. After 330 volts, the learner ceased to react – just silence. The implication was that he had either passed out, or was dead! Irrespective, the teacher was directed to treat the silence as an incorrect answer and to proceed to administer the electric shocks.

Naturally, with each outburst of pain from the learner, the teacher would become uncomfortable and express concern and apprehension. At that time, using predesigned increasingly severe prompts, Milgram would urge the teacher to carry on.

The first prompt was: “Please continue.” The second was: “The experiment requires you to continue.” This was followed by: “It is absolutely essential to continue.” Finally, the teacher was told: “You have no choice, you must go on.”

Today – as it was when Milgram conducted his experiment in 1961 – people are prone to follow instructions and are unwilling to challenge their superiors.Obviously, the experiment had nothing to do with punishment or learning, but was designed to see how people react to a cue from an authority figure.

A startling 100 percent of participants went to 300 volts. What is worse is, on average, 65 percent continued shocking the learner all the way to the 450 volts, despite the ongoing silence.

Even more alarming is that when this experiment was recently replicated in 2015, 90 percent of participants kept on administering shocks to the full 450 volts – because they were requested to do it.

Did the participants have a personal relationship to Milgram? No – they had only met him at the outset of the experiment. How could they follow someone’s orders so blindly? Simply put, it was because he was wearing a white coat; he was in charge.

The experiment concluded that, in spite of their better judgment, people are prone to follow instructions either out of a sense of fear, or out of their desire to be cooperative. This study revealed just how unwilling workers are to confront and challenge their superiors.

The reality is that if you are in a position of authority, you are wearing a “white coat”, perhaps not physically, but the title “manager” or “supervisor” has the same effect. It may be an allocated parking bay, a designation on the door, a plaque on a desk, or a unique-coloured hard hat or reflector vest. These are the workplace symbols of a white coat.

We often underestimate the amount of power and influence we have over our employees. This is an immense privilege and a responsibility.

We often facilitate safety meetings and engage workers during walkabouts and the way we interact in those moments has a direct impact on people’s attitude, commitment and performance.

The pertinent question is: in what manner are we wearing our coats? Is it inspiring our team members to higher levels of excellence, to be more mindful and conscious, and to be more dedicated to working safely?

Conversely, is it possible that we are causing them to resent us, to disengage, refuse to take responsibility and not care about safety? 

Brett Solomon is the CEO of The Kinetic Leadership Institute and is a recognised leader in combining neuroscience, change management and leadership theory to drive cultural transformation processes. Brett specialises in neuro-leadership, especially when it comes to understanding what drives human behaviour and how to influence it. He has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives in throughout South Africa, Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

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