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Avoiding Evil and Promoting Good: the Bully in the Workplace

As social psychologist Phillip G. Zimbardo proved in his Stanford University "student prison" experiment in the 1970's and Stanley Milgram proved in his "susceptibility to authority" experiments in the 1960's, we are not only all capable of bullying behavior, we are all capable of torture.

Zimbardo's students who were randomly divided into "guards" and "prisoners" eerily anticipated the horror of Abu Ghraib decades before the American military was pantsed by its own people and a few digital cameras. 

If you don't recall Zimbardo's study, shortly after being assigned their roles as "guards" or "prisoners" the "guards" began tormenting the "prisoners," the "prisoners" began to have mental break-downs, and Zimbardo, by his own accounting, become "a Prison Superintendent [who] began to talk, walk and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of 'my prison' than the needs of the young men entrusted to my care as a psychological researcher."

In Zimbardo's article -- The Psychology of Power and Evil:  All Power to the Person?  To the Situation?  To the System? here, he describes those situations in which we are all prone to become bullies and those workplace practices that can prevent us from "going rogue."   

(above, a short documentary with original footage from the prison experiment)

Zimbardo's prescriptions for creating a culture of good rather than evil after the jump. 

  • Encourage “mindfulness” in which people are reminded in a variety of ways not to live their lives on automatic pilot, but to take a moment to reflect on the immediate situation, to think before acting, to not go mindlessly into situations where angels and sensible people fear to tread.

  • Promote a sense of personal responsibility and accountability for all of one’s actions, making people aware that conditions of diffused responsibility merely disguise their own individual role in the outcomes of their actions.

  • Discourage even the smallest transgressions, cheating, gossiping, lying, teasing and bullying.

    • They provide the first steps toward escalating downwards to ever worsening behaviors.
  • Learn to distinguish between Just Authority, to whom respect and even obedience may be appropriate, and Unjust Authority (as in the Milgram study), to whom disrespect and disobedience are necessary to oppose and change that tyrant.

  • Support critical thinking from the earliest times in a child’s life and maintaining it throughout life.

  • Ask for evidence to support assertions, demanding that ideologies be sufficiently elaborated to separate rhetoric from reality-based conclusions, to independently determine whether specific means ever justify vague and harmful ends.

  • Reward social modeling of moral behavior, elevating for societal recognition those who do the right thing, with rewards for “whistle blowers,” such as the U.S. army reservist, Joe Darby, who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and those who expose wrong doing in government and corporation, and by the Mafia.

  • Respect human diversity, appreciating human variability and the differences among people as a fundamental way to reduce our in-group biases that lead to derogating others, prejudice and the evils of discrimination.

  • Change social conditions that make people feel anonymous, instead supporting conditions that make people feel special, so that they have a sense of personal value and self worth.

  • Become aware of when conformity to the group norm is counter-productive and should not be followed, when independence should take precedence and be adopted regardless of social rejection by that group.

  • Never allow one’s self to sacrifice personal freedoms for the promise of security, it is always a bad deal because the sacrifices are real and immediate and the security is a distant illusion.

    • This is as true in marital arrangements as it is in being a good citizen in a nation where the leader promises to make everyone safer against a current threat by giving up some of their personal freedoms so that the leader can have more power.
    • That bad bargain usually translates to more power Over Them, as well as over the enemy.
    • It is the first step in creating fascist leaders even in democratic societies, as Erich Fromm reminded us about Hitler, but is as true today in many nations.


Comments (1)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
A grateful reader - February 23, 2008 11:54 PM

Thanks for posting this.

Have you been following the Situationist Blog?
http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/ Law, rationality, sociology and power.

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