These guards not only physically, psychologically and sexually abused the prisoners, they photographed themselves doing these things and circulated those pictures.
The public was horrified when these abuses became public. People who knew these guards personally were equally horrified because they described them as "good" people and that these behaviours were out of character.
Zimbardo argues that "… while most people are good most of the time, they can be readily seduced into engaging in what would normally qualify as ego-alien deeds, as antisocial, as destructive of others." In other words, under the right conditions, we could all do things that are inconsistent with who we normally are.
While the formal investigation of these events focused on the individuals involved, Zimbardo argues that personality traits alone do not explain human behaviour. From his research he found that in order to explain behaviours we must understand:
1 – what personality traits and experiences the individual brings to the situation
2 – what situational forces are brought to bear on the individual
3 – how system forces create and maintain situations.
From his perspective, it's not just about the 'bad apples', but also about the barrel and the barrel makers.
Zimbardo argues that in certain contexts, situational forces are more powerful than personality traits in shaping behaviours. But we often overestimate the importance of personal qualities and underestimate the importance of situational forces when trying to understand the causes of people's behaviours. In certain situations, it is easy for ordinarily good people to begin to engage in inappropriate or abusive behaviours or to be indifferent to the pain they are causing others.
Through his research, Zimbardo concludes that, " 'Bad systems' create 'bad situations' create 'bad apples' create 'bad behaviors,' even in good people." The focus on the individual means that the role of the system is not examined and is therefore not changed. Bad behaviors are therefore likely to be repeated by others.
'Bad systems' create 'bad situations' create 'bad apples' create 'bad behaviors,' even in good people.
In examining the abuses at Abu Ghraib, he concluded that they resulted from the total failure of leadership at the prison. This allowed people who normally were good to engage in bad behaviours. It also allows those who normally engage in moderately bad behaviours to find it easier to engage in these behaviours more often and to easily descend into more serious bad behaviours.
When examining issues of harassment in organizations we should not only look at individual behaviours, but also look at whether the organization has policies and procedures in place, whether employees received training, and whether managers knew about the behaviours and did anything about it. The harassment is therefore placed into the context of the system as well as the situation. While it does not take away from the responsibility of the individual for their own behaviour, it places responsibility on the organization and managers to guide and monitor employee behaviours.
This duty is also embedded in our human rights legislation. The legislation notes that anyone in a management position that knows or ought reasonably to have known about the harassment and fails to act promptly to stop the behaviour is seen as having condoned the behaviour. This also violates human rights legislation and the organization's anti-harassment policy.
You might think that Abu Ghraib and even the Jian Ghomeshi situation are extreme examples of inappropriate workplace behaviours. While they might be, there are other examples that offer the same learnings. There have been many recent examples at workplaces and even schools where an individual resorts to violence after being harassed and bullied – and when individuals, including other employees / students, as well as managers / teachers knew about the situation but did nothing to change it.
So how does Zimbardo's research link to creating an organizational culture that is free from harassment? Here are what I see as the key learnings:
1 – Organizations need to have the systems in place that articulate and support a high standard of conduct for employees. When standards are not established and employees are not held accountable to live up to these standards of performance, the informal culture fills the vacuum. Employees set their own standards and create the organizational culture. This can be a welcoming and inclusive culture or it could be a culture that excludes those who are different, and worse, harasses and bullies certain employees.
2 – Senior managers have the most important role in establishing organizational values and keeping them alive within the organization. They not only determine the priorities for the organization but also determine how this work will get done. They define what values will guide this work, and what will not be compromised for the sake of results. The behaviour of employees is shaped, and organizational culture built, by the values of the organization and whether leaders incorporate these values into their day-to-day work.
3 – Leaders need to set the bar high and be consistent. They should not accept any level of inappropriate behaviour from anyone. They themselves should avoid small transgressions such as swearing, cheating, lying, gossiping, laughing at inappropriate jokes, teasing, or bullying. When leaders engage in these behaviours staff will model these behaviours and will themselves engage in these small transgressions. And as Zimbardo notes, small negative behaviours that are allowed to continue easily become stepping stones to more serious negative behaviours.
4 – Do not allow staff to be anonymous. Leaders need to get to know those who work directly and indirectly for them. This can be done by walking around the organization, getting to know everyone by name, and periodically visiting each worksite. When people are able to remain anonymous they lose the human connection with the organization. This creates a breeding ground for bullying, harassment, and other bad behaviours.
5 – At Abu Ghraib, there was an abundance of negative role models that supported abusive behaviours. The power of role models can also be used to achieve the opposite – inclusive behaviours. Researchers have found that positive role models increase the likelihood that those around them will engage in positive behaviours.
6 – Understand the power of group acceptance which will make some people do almost anything. People will violate their own personal values as well as the values of the organization in order to fit in and be part of the group. That is why it is important that leaders model inclusive behaviours. It is easier for employees to object to their colleagues’ inappropriate behaviours when they know that the organization's leaders are on their side. It is also important to have the systems in place to support employees to report inappropriate behaviours.
7 – Finally, if situations can be structured so that individuals can descend into bad behaviours, they can also be structured so that they can ascend into good. Managers can support those who engage in moderately good behaviours so that they engage in these behaviours more often and engage in more serious good behaviours.
So while the Jian Ghomeshi allegations are being discussed at the water cooler let's hope that the situational and systemic forces that encourage these behaviours and allow them to continue are also being discussed in the boardroom.
Further viewing and reading:
Lecture: Philip Zimbardo: Why ordinary people do evil… or good
TED Talks (23 min)
(Warning: Zimbardo shows pictures taken at Abu Ghraib which are very graphic and which some people may find disturbing. Most have been edited out by TED.)
Lecture: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, April 2, 2007
MIT World – Technology and Culture Forum (111 minutes)
(Warning: Zimbardo shows pictures taken at Abu Ghraib which are very graphic and which some people may find disturbing)
Book: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo. 2007.