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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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18. Morals melt under pressure:
authority and obedience
Organizations operate on the basis of power and authority. The employees must do the
management’s bidding. Once something is decided by the management, it must be carried
out by subordinates. When push comes to shove the boss has the inal say. This obedience
is instilled in us from birth: parents know what is good for us, teachers tell us what we need
to know. If everyone did their own thing, it would be chaos. How obedient are people? Do
they remain obedient when this requires them to ride roughshod over others? What does this
mean for work?
Imagine you work as a nurse in a hospital. One day you receive a phone call from a doctor
you do not know. He asks you to administer medicine to a patient immediately, so that it
has taken effect by the time he arrives. He will sign the request for the medicine, which is
unfamiliar to you, on arrival. The doctor tells you that the patient must receive 20 milligrams of
the medicine. You walk to the medicine cabinet and take out the medicine. On the label you
read that a dose of 5 milligrams is normal and 10 milligrams is the absolute maximum. You
return to the telephone. What do you say to the doctor?
Charles Holing and his colleagues put this hypothetical dilemma to nurses in their research.
83 percent said they would not follow the doctor’s request. But what happened when the
researchers actually phoned a hospital and followed the script described above? Only 5
percent of nurses refused to administer the double dose. The rest followed the request, if
rather hesitantly in some cases. Luckily the medicine was a placebo, so, unbeknown to the
nurses, the patient was in no danger.
An important theme in social psychology is obedience to authority, in this case the nurse’s
obedience to the doctor, but it could equally be employee to manager, manager to director, director
to chairman of the board, or chairman of the board to governors, shareholders, and regulators.
How far will people take obedience? In the example above, nurses could still assume that if the
doctor said it, the overdose would not be harmful to the patient. But what do people do if the
results are indisputably damaging, if they can see with their own eyes that it is wrong?
18. Morals melt under pressure: authority and obedience