The Problem with Authority

The Problem with Authority

In a 1966 experiment, 22 nurses were unwittingly part of an experiment to test obedience to figures of authority.  There were three ‘rules’ that the nurses knew they must obey when administering drugs to patients.


  1. They must not accept instructions over the phone.
  2. They must not exceed the limit stated on the box.
  3. The drug must be listed in the ward stock list.

The (not real) Dr Smith phones the nurse, introduces himself and asks the nurse to check for the drug Astroten – which was not on the ward stock list.  They are told to administer double the limit on the box, and Dr Smith advised that he was terribly busy and would sign the authorisation later when he would be in the ward.


Administering the drug would mean breaking all three rules.


21 out of 22 nurses were willing to do that citing that they were unwilling to question the ‘authority’ of the doctor.


In another experiment by Stanley Milgram, participants were willing to administer significant and increasing electrical shocks to ‘actors’ despite being distraught and stressed, simply because the man in the white coat told them to.


Whilst socially, we are probably a little more willing to challenge authority than in the 1960’s, this psychological phenomenon is still a significant part of our DNA and can inhibit quality conversation, quality decisions, and quality problem-solving.


Traditional perceptions of authority inhibit the truth.


One valid strategy to lessening this negative impact of traditional authority is a bottom-up approach: to focus on giving employees and team members the skills and confidence to have those conversations, but unless the figure of authority (in most cases, the team leader) gives continued and express permission for this to occur, it is unlikely that any employee or team member who is even slightly concerned about the possible negative consequences of challenging the leader (emotional reaction, impact on performance rating, embarrassment or humiliation, rejection…) will speak up or challenge or refuse to act.


This issue must also be tackled from top down. Leaders must understand that every word, tone, and behaviour has a significant and long-lasting effect on those who recognize their position of authority. The brain’s trigger response to fear is quick and significant – in fact 5 times the significance of a reward trigger. And protecting ourselves is still, with our relatively primitive brains, important enough for us to defy and bias our logical reasoning and decision-making in favour of a perceived protective behaviour.


In other words, we may be quite willing to lie, cheat and hurt others in order to protect our own physical or social safety.


Teaching leaders about the nuances of human motivation, and the workings of the human brain provides them with a new and useful filter with which to communicate and engage others. Leaders MUST begin to see their role in organisations to amplify the human awesomeness of others, rather than focusing on their own pursuit of awesomeness.


Here are three things to think about if you are in a position of authority.


  1. Aim to NEVER put another human being in the position of having to make the choice between personal safety and doing the right thing. You should be present and aware enough to know when this is happening. If people are lying to you our of fear, that is your fault. 


  2. Never stop working to build trusting, honest and open relationships with your team and colleagues. Get to know them. Be humble and do more asking and listening than talking. Learn to have powerful and useful conversations. 


  3. Give your team and colleagues permission to challenge you.  Statements like “I don’t have all the answers, I’m keen to hear your perspectives”, or “Please don’t be afraid to disagree with me – we need all the possibilities on the table”, or “Don’t try to make me like you, try to make me think!”  And this can’t just happen once.  Every meeting, every week – find a way to openly invite and appreciate honest and challenging feedback and ideas.

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Have a great day!




The Science of Leading through Times of Change

The Science of Leading through Times of Change

Sometimes I feel like I just can’t keep up.  The emails keep piling in, the kids continue to require attention (funny that!), my list of what I want to achieve keeps growing and therefore when I don’t achieve it, the let down is not fun.


Things are different to when I was younger – much much faster.  We have always experienced change.  Every successive generation longs to be back in the days when things were simple!


In recent times though, as things seem to have been moving faster, we have been referring to this as ‘accelerated change’.  I think now, we can safely say we are in times of ‘accelerating change’…that is, the acceleration itself is accelerating.


What is my point?


As a species we are not accelerating our physical evolution – our brains and bodies are way behind in terms of keeping up.  Of course this seems obvious, but have you really taken the time to reflect on and explore some ways to manage and lead in these times.  Going faster and working harder just aren’t working.


For me this is both a mindset shift, as well as a time where we need to deeply understand ourselves as humans, and to apply a new filter to how we interact with and lead our teams.


Here are three things you can begin to think about in terms of leading – and I do refer to self-leadership as well as leading others – in order to better manage yourself through accelerating change.


  1. Understand how to truly optimise the use of individual and organisational brains. Developing a mastery in ‘execution’ – getting things done in the most brain-friendly way – can go a long way to squeezing much more out of a day without leaving you drained.  This can be supported through a deep understanding of neuroplasticity – the way the brain learns and adapts.  A tool such as PRISM Brain Mapping that focuses on the ‘economics of energy’ can be a useful support here.
  1. Focus on self-leadership. No longer can or should we rely on leaders to motivate and engage.  I believe that we should all be taking responsibility for turning up to work as fully functional focused humans.  That means investing in our own self-development and health – both mental and physical.  This ‘if you want me to be healthy then you pay for my gym membership’ stuff doesn’t cut it for me anymore!  And if you are a leader, you need to be an absolute role model for understanding and managing within the change environment – and that requires exceptional self-leadership.
  1. Make progress visible. If you have read any of Dr Jason Fox’s work, you will be familiar with this concept.  I read somewhere the other day that ‘progress is the new performance’.  Work is a game, and an unknown journey.  There are only two points of focus that are needed – the end game – I’m driving to Sydney – and the next steps – let’s get to Byron Bay and decide where to go from there.  This translates to having a bigger long term goal that meets two criteria:  A 5, 10 or even 25 year vision, and a set of clear and simple priorities for the next couple of months is simple and effective.  Then keep it visible.


Have a great day!