In August 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous experiment featuring a mock prison setting whose results are cited time and again as evidence of how everyday human beings can be easily transformed into heartless tyrants. In a recent article for the New Yorker, however, psychology and science writer Maria Konnikova revisits the conditions for that experiment and comes up with a different lesson, one that carries great significance for those trying to understand the nature of workplace bullying and abusive work environments. The Stanford Prison Experiment recruited a group of middle-class college students and then randomly divided them into two groups, guards and prisoners. Konnikova describes the commonly accepted version of what happened next:
According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.
Interpretations of the experiment followed in step: Ordinary people, when given too much power and the right nudge, can become tyrannical and abusive. Today, writes Konnikova, “(t)he Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all . . . .” But hold on, let’s not jump to conclusions about the inner demon that lies within us. Konnikova points out that the guards were instructed to process the prisoners in ways that demeaned and humiliated them, including being stripped, searched, deloused, and given a numbered gown that served as a prison uniform. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo himself played the role of prison superintendent, tacitly approving of the guards’ behavior. Even the ad soliciting participants, which expressly referred to an experiment on the psychology of prison life, may have planted seeds of expected role behavior. Konnikova summarizes what she believes is the genuine lesson of the experiment:
While it’s true that some guards and prisoners behaved in alarming ways, it’s also the case that their environment was designed to encourage—and, in some cases, to require—those behaviors.
The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.
Applied to workplace bullying
Many of you can probably guess where I’m going with this.
There’s a lot more to Konnikova’s thought-provoking and informative article, but the main message carries great significance for our understanding of the dynamics of workplace bullying: Organizational culture counts. Leadership counts. Management practices count.
In fact, when I read Konnikova’s piece, I was reminded of a post from last summer in which I wrote about philosopher Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil:
Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.
Much more often than not, when workplace bullying occurs, it is supported, conducted, enabled, validated, and/or defended by senior leadership. Furthermore, in the modern workplace, a “successful” campaign of targeted abuse often requires the willing cooperation and assistance of multiple underlings.