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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Saying 'no' to managers sometime essential, January 19, 2007, 2D.

“Just say no!” was a popular campaign theme for the anti-drug movement.  At times, it is also necessary to say no to superiors and those in authority.  Not doing so can be costly and harmful.

A recent series of television news shows demonstrated the natural willingness of people to comply with orders and requests from others who are perceived to be in positions of authority.  In one such story, an individual posing as a police officer made phone calls to fast-food restaurants across the country asking store managers to detain and strip search employees as part of an alleged investigation.  Several managers complied.  One female employee was actually made to perform jumping jacks in the nude in compliance with the orders of the store manager as instructed by the voice on the phone.  The events of the story were all caught on the restaurant’s security camera. 

To explain why such disturbing and ridiculous-seeming things occur, ABC News drew on the work of Stanley Milgram and his team of researchers at Yale University in the early 1960s.   Milgram was interested in the relationship between authority and compliance.  His interest in this topic came from the atrocities performed by the Nazis during World War II.  He sought to understand why and how people could perform unspeakable and horrific acts on others.

Milgram’s classic and controversial studies involved a series of experiments that set subjects up as teachers.  The subjects in the experiments were instructed to administer electric shocks to learners (who were actually involved in the experiments) when they answered questions incorrectly.  At predetermined times in the experiments, learners expressed pain and discomfort from the shocks, voiced their objections to continuing the experiment, demanded to be released from their connection to the shock machine, and fell silent after acting that they experienced a heart attack.  Over the objections of the learners, a large percentage of subjects administered and continued to administer progressively higher shocks simply because they were told to do so by an authority figure—a man in a lab coat who was perceived to be in charge of the situation.  When subjects expressed their desire to cease the experiments and shocks, the authority figure told them to continue and assumed responsibility for the outcomes.

Milgram’s studies demonstrated the tendency for individuals to comply with the orders of people who are perceived to be in positions of power and authority, even when the orders and actions might be immoral, unethical, or illegal.  Perceptions of status, power, and authority can sometimes lead lower-level participants to override their own senses of morality and basic judgment.  An environment and culture that encourages its people to “just follow orders” is one that is destined to fall victim to the abuse of power by corrupt people and policies.

Bad things can happen when authority is followed blindly and without question.  Many of the ethics scandals that have plagued our society over the past years could have easily been averted by one or more bold people.  It is required of educated and moral people to sometimes say no, and disobey.

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