“Tell me what to do”…people will do it. – David Marquet
David Marquet - Intent Based Leadership: Create Leaders at Every Level

“Tell me what to do”…people will do it.

“Tell me what to do”…people will do it.

In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram wanted to learn how susceptible people were to doing what they were told. He was also curious about their willingness to obey an authority figure, even if an ordered action conflicted with their morals.

The experiment went like this: participants were placed in the role of a “teacher” who administered electric shocks to a “learner.” The teachers believed the learner was in a different room, sometimes within hearing distance, sometimes not. Every time the learner answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was told to administer greater and greater levels of electric shock for each incorrect answer. At the highest levels, the machine was marked “Moderate,” “Strong,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” and the two highest levels were marked “XXX.”

Although no one was actually shocked, Milgram played recordings to make it sound like the learner was in a great deal of pain and wanted to end the experiment. Despite these protests, many participants continued the experiment when the authority figure urged them to, increasing the voltage after each wrong answer until some eventually administered what would be lethal electric shocks.

Similar experiments conducted since the original have provided nearly identical results, indicating that people are willing to go against their consciences if they are being told to do so by authority figures. So any business, any club, or any society which fosters an “I’ll tell you and you do it” approach will be susceptible to this. It’s the “I’ll tell you” that absolves people of the responsibility for their actions and allows humans to do the worst things possible.

The age-old response to mass crimes has always been “I was doing what I was told.” Relying upon a benevolent leader isn’t the answer – the answer is to get everyone thinking and everyone taking responsibility for their behavior. The next time you are tempted to tell someone what to do, and enforce a degree of power over them, whether formalized or not, think twice – and ask them what they think the right thing to do is.

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0 thoughts on ““Tell me what to do”…people will do it.”

  1. MikeC

    The Nuremberg Defense , “i was ordered to do it” – was the catalyst I believe to Milgram’s work on everyday people and their ability to administer torture under the guise of being ordered. There was a follow up experiment in which the participants were able to see other and yet another one in which they were In the same room. In a descending order or screaming willingness to toture – Milgram’s proved that when we are in the same space together we are less likely to follow the orders. I believe the numbers in the original experiment were around 70 plus percent carried all the way to the highest or next highest electrical shock. When in person -it was only 5%! It makes me think about email and other digital communication, even phone conferences, that are used in business. The separation makes the proclivity of enacting an order that much more likely – meaning as leaders we really need to be aware!!

  2. Catherine Cheng, MD

    Thank you for this! I think it applies in medicine well. Doctoring can be compared to leading, can be compared to parenting. When the patient says, “You’re the doctor, just tell me what to do,” and things don’t go how they want, then they blame me. I can own my part, but nobody’s health or illness rests entirely on the shoulders of his/her physician. When we are able to engage patients to take part in decision making, when they can take charge of their own care plan, my experience is that both outcomes and the doctor-patient relationship improve!

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