I am currently working with a large company based out of Kansas City, MO, with two operations in Oregon. In helping to lead the management team towards more effective leadership, we are reading Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last.
We recently discussed chapter 13, Abstraction Kills. In his book, Mr. Sinek describes a situation where an experiment was being conducted in which volunteers were enlisted to administer an electrical shock to individuals they did not know. Unbeknownst to the volunteers of the shock treatments, the individuals who was receiving the shock treatment were the scientist conducting the experiment. The various levels of voltage were listed on each switch were labeled from slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense shock, extremely intense shock, all the way up to danger severe shock. As the volunteer of the shock treatment increased the electrical current, the scientist inside the room would scream in pain and ask to have it stop. They weren’t actually being shocked, but the shock volunteer did not know that. When the individual would try to stop the experiment, they were repeatedly told the experiment must go on.
Mr. Sinek compares this behavior to what occurred during World War II in which crimes against humanity were committed on a massive scale and how would this be possible? “It wasn’t possible for a few warped minds to have effectively committed genocide on such a remarkable scale.” It required the help thousands and perhaps millions of people.”
The most common defense that many Nazis offered after the war for their behavior was “we had no choice, we were just following orders.” They were able to rationalize their behavior because they were told to do so, similar to the volunteer of the experimental shock treatments when the person in charge kept saying the experiment must go on and the volunteer would continue.
I believe there were two other factors at play here. The victimized individuals had no weapons to defend themselves and they lived in great fear. How does this apply to the workplace environment and we as leaders?
As leaders we must understand that we are not in charge of our employees, but they are in our charge, and we must treat them with dignity, kindness, and respect. When we look at our employees as if we are in charge of them, it changes the dynamics. Just like the victimized individuals during World War II had no weapons, our employees have no weapons to defend themselves from tyrannical and harsh leadership other than to leave, which is often not financially feasible. When a leader looks at their leadership style as if they are in charge of their employees the dynamic sets up a negative situation and the employees live in fear. They have no real weapons to defend themselves and live in fear of being let go, which I would venture to say sets up the company up for low morale and a low productivity environment.
As leaders it is our responsibility to take care of those who are in our charge and do what we can do to assure their success. After all, if our employees are engaged and successful, the company will be successful.
Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, is available on Amazon.