Courageous Followers – Part 2

We know the characteristics of Groupthink, and we know the strategies that a leader can employ to discourage Groupthink. We have tools as facilitators and OD consultants to help group members deal with this phenomenon. At the same time, some people have dived deeper into this issue, and looked at it from the perspective of the individual participants: What leads people to obey leaders, even when they promote bad ideas? Are there people who tend to speak up or dissent, for whom it comes more easily? If so, where does that ability come from? Is this something we can teach people, to not follow leaders who will mislead them (think Jim Jones in Guyana)? Can we train people to voice their doubts, in companies (NASA), in the community (Guyana), in society (civil rights movement)?

In the famous Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, the research participants were ordered to give shocks to people (subjects) who gave incorrect answers on a test that the participant administered; the subjects were in another room but their comments were audible to the test administrators. The subjects were play-acting, screaming in pain as if they were receiving the shocks, but in fact nothing was happening to them. It was astonishing to see the results of the experiments: “We know that two thirds of people will follow the orders of authority even when they feel them to be destructive and they are not under duress to do so. There is an absence of data about what about the other third is different. Yet this is the most important aspect for us to understand if we are to encourage and develop those characteristics.” (Ira Chaleff)

It turns out that for both Ira and myself, our interest in followers comes from studying the lessons of the Holocaust. I studied and taught the curriculum “Facing History and Ourselves: the Holocaust and Human Behavior”, which generated my interest in the role of the rescuer/dissenter and the bystander – the one who dissents and disagrees with the leaders, and the one who doesn’t speak up. There has been a lot of research done on the rescuers, to identify the characteristics that enabled them to resist the brutality of the Nazi ideology and the Nazi leaders. Nehama Tec is a scholar who documented the attributes of the rescuers.
Quoting from the website, I want to highlight three of the “six characteristics and conditions shared by gentile altruistic rescuers…
1. Individuality or separateness, an inability to blend into their social environments;
2. Independence or self-reliance, a willingness to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how these are viewed by others;
3. An enduring commitment to stand up for the helpless and needy reflected in a long history of doing good deeds.”

People have studied these characteristics in order to determine their origin; some people learned this from families with strong moral principles; some came from non-mainstream backgrounds, on the fringes in terms of political or religious leaning. For example, the Huguenots, who famously saved children in Le Chambon, saw themselves as outside of the French mainstream, remembering their own persecution by the Catholic authorities between the 16th-18th century. Given their history they had “a strong suspicion of authoritarian governments. ”

We can see that for some, the ability to dissent comes from their families or their culture. We need to embed this ability in the culture of our companies and our society in order to support healthy decisions and humane practices. As to teaching people to speak up as individuals, I wonder if more research has been done on that. I was fascinated when Ira brought to my attention the concept of “Intelligent Disobedience”, which is used in training guide dogs to know when not to obey an order that endangers the human and dog team. Ira asks: Are there clues here to advance our embrace of these concepts? Great question!

One comment

  1. Great post, Abby. Of course you already know what topic I’m going to relate all this to: adult development. In terms of Bob Kegan’s theory of evolving perspective-taking in adults, the ratio of dissenters in Milgram’s experiments appears roughly equivalent to the ratios of those below Kegan’s Self-Authored thinking, and the description of Tec’s rescuers sounds very aligned with Self-Authoring. What to do? I’d say start with disseminating the idea that the adult mind develops at all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s