Employee Engagement and The Stanford Prison Experiment

Image a worldwhere the meek have really inherited the earth. Where the rich are now at the bottom of the economic pyramid and the poor are now the ruling class. Imagine working in a factory shooting screws for 10 years and the next Monday you show up and you’re the foreman. You are now large and in charge.

Well, you don’t really have to image it.

Back in 1971 a psychology professor at Stanford conducted the now infamous Stanford prison experiment. The goal of the experiment was to understand the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison guards using college students to play the roles of the guards and the prisoners. The experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that the inherent personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior in prison.

What could possibly go wrong.

Plenty.

The experiment was halted after only 6 days and the observations made about the experiments included (excerpted from the Wikipedia page on the experiment):

  • On the second day, the prisoners blockaded their cell door with their beds and took off their stocking caps. The guards subsequently attacked the prisoners with fire extinguishers.
  • In order get more control the “guards” set up a “privilege cell” in which prisoners who were not involved in the riot were treated with special rewards, such as higher quality meals. The “privileged” inmates chose not to eat the meal in commiseration with their fellow prisoners.
  • After 36 hours, one prisoner began to act crazy, screaming, cursing and going into what the “guards” called a “rage”. This participant had to be released as the stress was too much.
  • Guards forced the prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity and used these prisoner counts to harass the prisoners. They instituted physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count.
  • Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, exacerbated by the guards’ refusal to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate anywhere but in a bucket placed in their cell.
  • As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket and removed mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete.
  • Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies.
  • Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only six days.

That’s right. All of the above happened in the first 6 days.

The head of the experiment, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, said the prisoners had internalized their roles to the extent that they waited for “parole” to be released when they could have simply just quit and walked out. They so identified with the role they never considered that option.

There were other sadistic events forced on the prisoners by the guards but suffice it to say the guards become a*%holes and the prisoners took on the behavior one normally associates with what you see in prison movies.

The scientific summary:

The experiment’s results favor situational attribution of behavior over dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). It seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants’ behavior.

How Does Employee Engagement Fit Into This?

Good question.

Being a manager in a company is a role with expectations, history, microcultures and goals. So does not being a manager – being a “rank and file” employee. There are unspoken (and spoken) rules of behavior for each of those positions in the company. And sometimes we can’t see what we do and who we do it to.

In other words, the behavior of our employees may be less about their internal motivations and personality (and your managers too) and more about the situation they find themselves in each day at work.

If you don’t think culture matters reread that last sentence.

Maybe the brave among you should think about doing your own little role reversal event. Call it your Stanford Engagement Experiment.

Take a few rank and file employees – put them into a test situation where they are the managers. Take a few managers and make them rank and file employees. Drop the flag and yell go! Come back in 6 weeks and see what happens.

I’m convinced management’s inability to foster engagement in a company is really about situational issues, and reminding your managers what it is like to be an employee with less power, less control, less “situational” value, will go a long way to helping them find ways to engage their team.

FTR: If you do this I take no responsibility for your pseudo-managers taking away employees’ beds and putting them in small cubes day after day.


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