An excerpt from Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong, by Ira Chaleff
What is it that we are trying to teach our children at home or in school about obedience? Dr. Stanley Milgram, who conducted the famous experiments on obedience at Yale in the 1960s, gives us a clue as he tries to make sense of what his experiments revealed.
Dr. Milgram sees human beings as capable of existing in two distinct states. One is a state of autonomy in which we make choices based on our own understanding of what is right and wrong. The other is in a state of hierarchical relationships in which we become the agent of those at higher levels. He calls this an “agentic state”, meaning we are acting on behalf of an agent or authority’s judgments and instructions, rather than on our own.
Milgram observes that once a human being shifts from the autonomous state to the agentic state, it is difficult for most to easily shift back. Yet, remaining only in the agentic state where the individual does not feel responsible for his or her actions because they are not originating with him or her is highly dangerous.
If we accept Milgram’s analysis, then the answer to the question – “What are we trying to teach our children at home and in school about obedience?” – is the nature of these two states, how they come about, what they feel like, and the capacity for shifting between them when it is appropriate to do so.
It would seem that we need to devise pedagogical programs using age appropriate methods for doing several things:
1. Creating an understanding of the two states and their function –
Sometimes people do things they decide to do and sometimes they do things others have told them they need to do.
What are examples of things “The person decides to do” and what are examples of “They do what they are told?
2. Creating awareness of the two states within the experience of those being educated –
In your own life, when do you do things you decide?
When do you do things others tell you to do?
3. Creating awareness of how to self-regulate the tendencies of each state –
When you decide what to do, what are the kinds of things you need to think about? (is it safe, fair, enjoyable, hurtful to others, best way, etc.?)
When you do what others tell you to do, what are the kinds of things you need to think about? (Who is telling you, do they have the right to tell you, is what they are telling you to do safe, harmful, etc?)
4. Creating awareness of when to let either state be dominant –
Under what conditions is it better to do what others are telling you to do?
Under what conditions is it better to question what you are being told to do, even if it seems hard to refuse?
5. Creating a bridge between the states that preserves personal accountability, despite acting as an agent –
Are you always still responsible?
6. Developing the language and skills to translate that sense of accountability into speech and action –
If you are not comfortable doing what you are told, how do you say so?
How do you resist doing something even when you are pressured to do it?
Parents, teachers, coaches, religious instructors, can weave a few of these questions into their activities to lay the foundation for a healthy relationship with authority and for instilling high standards of self accountability. This would be a fertile subject for parent support groups.
Ira Chaleff is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its third edition, and coeditor of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations, part of the Warren Bennis Leadership Series. He is the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and a member of the ILA board of directors. He is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter on Courageous Followership and transforming hierarchical relationships into powerful partnerships. Chaleff is founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, which provides coaching, consulting, and facilitation to companies, associations, and agencies. He is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University, where Courageous Followership is part of the core curriculum in its professional management training for staff. Chaleff lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Washington, D.C.
Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong is currently available via Amazon and all major online and brick-and-mortar book retailers in print, e-book, and audiobook formats.