The “Shocking” Power of Leadership
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
In of the most famous psychological experiments in history, Stanley Milgram set up a situation in which participants believed they were providing electric shock to a perfect stranger (who was actually a paid actor) as part of a study on memory and learning. Participants were told to shock the person, who was in another room, when he or she gave incorrect answers to various word pair questions. In some cases, the actor made a point to say he had a heart condition.
In reality, the person was not being shocked. However, the participant didn’t know this. In fact, a tape recorder was set up to make electric shock noises when the participant delivered the shocks. Also, the actor pounded on the wall, screamed in pain, and loudly complained about his heart condition after supposedly receiving shocks. Eventually, the actor stopped making noise altogether which really frightened some of the participants because they thought the person may have died or had a heart attack.
Despite this anxiety, most participants continued to shock the stranger. When they protested, participants were told they must continue. After the fourth protest, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, the person continued shocking the person to the maximum levels which they were told was 450 volts. Although participants were visibly (and verbally) upset about shocking a perfect stranger, nearly two-thirds of them, 26 out of 40, administered the highest level of shock possible. Only one person out of 40 refused to give any shock. Milgram concluded that human beings have an inherent desire to follow authority even when the behavior is antisocial or contrary to social norms (Milgram, 1963).
So what does this mean for safety?
Leaders have the authority to influence their company’s safety culture and often underestimate just how much employees follow their examples. By “walking the talk” for safety, leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization. Leaders do this by role modeling positive safety behaviors, spending time out in the field with employees, providing respectful safety coaching, and demonstrating integrity and commitment to safety. Leaders who do this create improved safety culture, morale, and trust with employees.
Research demonstrates that beliefs about leaders’ commitment to safety is associated with lower injuries (Christian et al., 2011 and Beus et al., 2010) and perceptions of leaders “walking the talk” for safety (i.e., safety-specific behavioral integrity) is related to safety compliance, psychological safety, and decreases in the frequency and severity of injuries (Halbesleben et al., 2013, Leroy et al., 2012). Fewer safety-related incidents and injuries occur when employees perceive high quality relationships with their leaders (Hofmann & Morgeson, 1999).
Here are a two quick examples from the field of leaders walking the talk for safety:
• An energy company was working to integrate safety into all operations instead of being perceived as a stand-alone effort. One of the executives decided to change the wording around all production graphs. The company replaced “watts produced” with “safe watts produced” for all internal and external communications about productivity. This small change had larger symbolic value of company leaders internalizing and illustrating the importance of safety.
• Several leaders in a biotech company in California instituted wellness programs to promote their vision of Safety 24/7 (both on and off the job). This included introducing regular safety fairs where employees go with their families to eat healthy food, receive back and foot massages, and get various health checks completed (e.g., blood pressure tests, cholesterol checks). They also successfully lobbied for a state-of-the-art gymnasium with incentives for employees to use it. To combat fatigue and carpal tunnel syndrome, they began piping in new-age music every couple of hours at work stations so employees stop what they’re doing and do light stretching for two to three minutes. Not surprisingly, this organization had exceptional levels of employee engagement and very few injuries.
Stanley Milgram demonstrated the power and responsibility associated with positions of authority. Leaders need to continuously walk the talk for safety to set the tone for employees. This improves safety culture and prevents serious injuries and fatalities.