Somewhere, a manager just ordered an employee to take a questionable action. To do something immoral or stupid. Something that causes harm to customers. There – it just happened again! In less than the time it takes to read this paragraph. Relentless wrongdoing. It happens all over the world.
It was a demand to ignore a customer’s legitimate complaint. An instruction to deny a refund when it was owed. An assignment to use big data to exploit vulnerable customers. A request to physically remove a passenger from an airplane because his seat was needed for someone else. “Follow the rules. Your job depends on it.”
The rule-following edict is a painful artifact of an abiding corporate culture that champions profits uber alle. Millennials, listen up: free thinkers are an impediment to efficiency. They don’t mesh with our manic, bottom-line obsessed business environment. “Objections are a luxury. We have a quota to meet, and there are only so many hours in the day.”
Tell that to the management of United Airlines, who are suddenly scratching their heads, wondering how to foster employees with less malleable backbones. Employees who don’t tremble when saying, “maybe we should consider another approach . . .” Good luck with that. The company just spent decades beating their employees into supplication.
When videos such as Dr. Dao’s violent removal from United Flight 3411 go viral, pundits echo the same three conclusions:
1. The corporate culture of the offending company is toxic,
2. There’s too much insistence on sticking to policy,
3. Employees need to be allowed to use their own judgement
If you’re looking for epiphanies, I suggest not reading any blog titled, What United Did Wrong. By now, we know. And among the “fixes,” you’re guaranteed to find employee empowerment, or some derivative of the idea. Hooray! Embedded in an Official Corporate Apology, we can expect a well-crafted sentence that contains the phrase, “our employees are now empowered to . . .” [Interesting note: that phrase – in quotes – received 175,000 search results].
When all else fails, try empowerment. We’re about it hear it like never before: Employee empowerment – or rather, employee empowerment! – get on the bandwagon now if you need a panacea for misguided corporate goals, bad policies, and ambiguous instructions! If only correcting scandals, scams, and commercial transgressions were that easy. Au contraire! Righting wrongs is not like flipping a switch. Or perfunctorily telling employees, “you are now empowered to . . . Now, let’s get on with business as usual . . .” Alas, empowerment is never one-and-done.
In the context of an enterprise, empowerment, defined as authority or power given to someone to do something, is more a process than a word. For employees, empowerment assumes the ability to disobey immoral orders. I’ll go further: it imparts an obligation to do so.
To understand the complexities of this idea, I’ll revive a 1961 experiment by Yale professor Stanley Milgram, who wanted to learn whether men of various backgrounds would administer an electric shock to a stranger when asked by an authority figure to do so. The experiment resulted in 64% of the participants obeying the order, and 36% refusing. At the time, Milgram’s experiment concluded that there was no factor – demographic, age, occupation, marital status – that predicted whether a given person would be an order follower or resister. Not a comforting insight.
Fast forward to 2017. University of Virginia professor Bidhan L. Parmar conducted a new analysis on Milgram’s data, and he discovered heretofore unknown commonalities within the two groups. According to a February, 2017 article, Remove the Blinders: How to Disobey Immoral Orders, “After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of audio transcripts from the experiment, Parmar noticed subjects who ultimately disobeyed demonstrated distinctive speech patterns. They tested their assumptions, exercised “moral imagination” and speculated out loud about the consequences of their actions. (“Suppose he gets all these wrong, and I get up to a level where it’s going to be extremely painful?” asked one resistor.) The resistors were also quicker to personalize the issue and made more “I” statements. Said one resistor, “I can’t keep doing this to him” while another noted, “I don’t think I want to be part of this any longer.
“On the flip side, subjects who obeyed showed different verbal patterns. They dug into the procedural details of the task, which was to read word pairs and administer a shock if the unseen person could not correctly associate them (typical comments included ‘Do you want me to read these fast or slow?’ or ‘Do you want me to write down the ones he gets wrong?’) The obeyers kept moral blinders on and read out word pairs, even as the ‘shocked’ person cried out.” (Note: nobody was physically harmed in the experiment. Milgram used actors as subjects, and the cries were recordings that were not created under duress.)
Parmar’s conclusion: “Resistors developed a moral understanding by asking questions, speculating and empathizing with “I” statements. Ultimately, they were able to override the authority’s instructions and make their own judgments.” Creating that outcome requires more – way more – than simply telling employees, “you’re empowered to . . .” Putting Parmar’s discovery into operation takes fortitude, planning, coaching, and – most important – giving employees room to question management’s requests, and to discuss their concerns. When executives cop an attitude that their policies are sacrosanct, when they lose ability to see wisdom from anyone other than peers, you get Dr. Dao bloodied while being dragged from his seat. That, and many, many lesser-known incidents resulting from the same hubris.
“In daily life, most people face choices in which there is a lot of ambiguity and the ‘problem’ isn’t always apparent,” Parmar says. “All of us are embedded in environments where we get conflicting orders, and often it’s not obvious what the right thing to do is.”
To boost the chances for employees to voice conscientious objection, Parmar recommends that managers should:
• Seek out dissenting views on key issues.
• Question routine actions: Ask why something needs to be done (or not) and what purpose it serves.
• Speak up when business imperatives conflict with personal morals.
• Protect those on your team who ask questions.
• Consider data from multiple angles.
• Make ethical reflection and discussion a regular part of team work sessions: How does our strategy affect customers, community, employees, the environment? Who might gain under this plan? Who might suffer?
Disobedience. Today, calling it moral imagination makes it sound more productive. That will keep the C-Suite happy. But it also might be the best liability protection a company can have.