What the Stanford Prison Experiment Can Teach Us About the Workplace

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Next time you think about workplace bullies, you might do well to consider the Stanford Prison Guard experiments. Philip Zimbardo's ground-breaking research on the social psychology of evil has a lot to teach us about bad apples in the workplace. With so much attention on workplace "bullies" as the primary culprits of workplace aggression, there remains a tendency to look for the lone bad apple believed to be making life hell for the workforce. Yet as Zimbardo's research demonstrated, bullying is contagious and anyone can and will become a workplace bully if put into an institutional setting where aggression is encouraged and cruelty unpunished.

In the prison guard experiments, Zimbardo found that when playing the role of guards, ordinary non-sadistic people became increasingly aggressive, were arbitrary in their punishments, and exhibited pleasure at the humiliation of their "prisoners." The more they dehumanized these prisoners, acted under the cloak of anonymity, and realized there would be no accountability for their abuses, the more their aggression escalated.

Even among those guards who initially resisted the aggression, all eventually rationalized their decision to join ranks with authoritarian guards, and all soon rationalized their behavior as legitimate due to the behavior of the one being punished -- even when the one being punished had clearly done nothing wrong and the punishment was by any standard a violation of human decency. Perhaps most disturbing of all, no matter how great and arbitrary the cruelty became, none of those who inflicted the brutality expressed any remorse when they returned home and were free of the artificial "prison" in which they'd acted with impunity. By having legitimated their actions as necessary and brought on by the target, through a process of cognitive dissonance the "guards" had come to believe they acted morally and appropriately.

We must dare to step beyond the boundaries of the individual bully paradigm, to consider how group psychology contributes to workplace aggression and turns good people bad.- Janice Harper

Through his subsequent research of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo has shown how anyone placed into a position of authority over another and assured that their actions will be tolerated so long as they please those in authority above them, will act in ways they never would in other circumstances. By applying his findings to workplace bullying, we can readily see how rapidly an entire workforce can be swept into the maelstrom of aggression when someone in a position of leadership marks a worker for elimination. Yet the current anti-bullying paradigm fails to explore this group dynamic, and consequently remains inadequate for addressing it.

A focus on interpersonal conflicts between the bad bully and the good worker focuses on seemingly inherent qualities of individuals, and fails to explain the sheer brutality that ensues when bullying expands to include multiple people engaged in shunning, gossiping about, sabotaging, and making accusations and reports against a targeted worker. The collective bullying of a worker is called "mobbing," and it typically ensues when a worker does or says something to annoy management, and management declares or demonstrates that the worker is unwanted. When that happens, it takes little effort to persuade the broader workforce to turn against the worker.

Just as Zimbardo talks about the slippery slope of evil that begins with the subject mindlessly taking the first step toward aggression through a seemingly minor action, when mobbing begins, workers are not initially encouraged to be cruel to the targeted worker. Far from it; they are told the worker must go, that it is the worker's own doing, and the worker will be better off if they just move on. The first step onto the slippery slope of mobbing behavior thus often begins with something as simple as agreeing with management that the targeted worker must go -- even if the decision to terminate the worker is clearly arbitrary or punitive or in some cases illegal, such as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, discrimination or unlawful behavior.

As mobbing commences, workers initially distance themselves from the targeted worker, then begin gossiping. Soon gossip turns to damaging rumors and speculation, which in turn lead to false reports being made to management, refusal to cooperate or work with the worker, and depriving the worker of resources necessary to do their job. The worker is further subjected to a series of secretive investigations, damaging evaluations, allegations of misconduct, and workplace surveillance (as emails are monitored, offices and phones searched, and work scrutinized for errors).

One of the findings of Zimbardo's team was that the arbitrariness of punishments, lack of privacy, public humiliation, and increasing powerlessness led those playing the role of "prisoner" to become enraged, confused and ultimately defeated. In this same way, through the uncertainty of what has been said about them, what will be said next, and how one's past and current words or acts will be distorted and reported, the mobbing target learns to be constantly on guard and in fear of even the most benign social encounters, leading the targeted worker to appear paranoid and mentally unstable, regardless of how mentally stable they were before the mobbing began.

Just as it would have been absurd for Zimbardo to get rid of the bad guards in hopes the aggressive behavior would be stopped, getting rid of the bullies in an institutional setting that has ignited and encouraged mobbing is an impossible task, given the number of aggressive participants. By shifting from a focus on bad apple bullies, to a focus on the institutional context that ignites group bullying or mobbing in the workplace, more effective workplace policies and practices become possible.

But to get there, we must dare to step beyond the boundaries of the individual bully paradigm, to consider how group psychology contributes to workplace aggression and turns good people bad. To avoid the slippery slope of workplace aggression, we might do well to mindfully step onto the path of workplace compassion. Instead of quixotically ridding the workplace of bullies, let us reflect on how we can contribute to a kinder, gentler way of working together. It begins not with how we treat those inside the golden circle, but how we treat those who've been cast from it.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.