Organizational Psychology, Psychology

Obedience, Power and Leadership : The unholy Trinity

History has not been flattering to those who were eventually caught in a cross-fire of ethical judgement of others. Unfortunately, in most cases this ethical judgement came far too late, and thus mostly led to a cautionary narrative alone. Such is the story of obedience at workplace.

Obedience is a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the individual would not have acted in this way.

Stanley Milgram‘s famous research on the subject was focussed on how germans annihilated more than 6 million jews during WWII under Hitler’s madman-leadership. His social experiments concluded that higher the authority, higher is the obedience to it – despite the degree of callousness asked of the subordinate. This obedience increased with unanimity, psychology behind which explains how so many germans bought into the absurdity of Hilter’s orders.

Obedience at Workplace

Workplaces of today are aimed at productivity rather than conformity. Those that are still inclining towards the older ways of ‘listen to the boss’ will unfortunately always only be as good as the boss – which is limiting, if not completely mediocre. One must not misconstrue obedience for discipline. While discipline is the cornerstone of getting things done on-time within the framework of a plan, obedience is about following orders. While one is like following map to a single destination with multiple roads, other is following one particular path even if you knew there exists a better one! That is what is limiting about obedience – it lacks the freedom of breaking -free from traditional mediocrity.

Should leaders expect obedience?

No. They should not.

If we flip the coin and observe people who are successfully obedient, it is more often that not those people who have practised people-pleasing. We have all had that cringe-worthy colleague of ours who would hover around the boss, running his inane errands to be in his inner sanctum. Such people never become partners but stay as pawns forever, without them knowing that they are pre-positioning themselves for maimed curiosity therefore limited growth. Such self-inflected boxing cannot be done by intelligent people. Stifling their intellectual curiosity is an attempt in futility, and they eventually break-free – sometimes in hostility.

Power-play has no room in good leadership

Seeking obedience is a poor form of leadership. At the heart of it lies a rotting inferiority complex that demands power. Exercising of their power-play leads to poor collection of talent and ideas. They lead with the crutches of fear among the team which helps them control dialogue on their own mediocrity because a people-pleasing follower would never tell you when your face is dirty.

I am a strong proponent of discipline which one needs to stay consistent on progress, but it is high-time that we shun the concept of fear and obedience – and bring our diverse, colourful and creative selves to the workplace.

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