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Authority and leadership: a balancing act

Would you hurt somebody with electro shocks if you were told to do so? While your immediate reaction will be “no, of course not”, the experiments of Stanley Milgram and his successors show a different result. If we are given a clear order to do something, we easily let go of our own morals and values and just do it. Even if that means hurting other people with electro shocks. Our team at Semler Company had a long discussion about the implications this has for leaders.

While hopefully nobody is ever asked by their boss to give electro shocks to somebody, we do, mostly in very stressful times, receive very clear instructions by our boss with little room for discussion or interpretation. The Milgram experiments show us that in these situations we are willing to ignore our own moral believes and just fulfill the task. We do not feel as responsible anymore and take less ownership in the outcome. We justify this by saying: “It is not our fault, we were just fulfilling orders.” This type of reaction not only results in compliance violations but also disables any type of collaboration and innovation. While leaders are authority figures, they have to ensure never to overrule the moral compass of employees.