Uber and The Stanford Prison Experiment

In August of 1971, a Stanford psychology professor conducted an experiment to study the psychological effects of perceived power. To do this, he recruited 24 college-aged men to participate in a 1–2 week study in a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. Applicants were screened for the study. The researchers assigned roles, either prisoner or guard, by flipping a coin. The study set up an environment and some vague guidelines then turned the participants loose to see where it went. It went ugly fast.

As part of the design of the experiment, prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given only a sack-dress and a nylon cap to wear. Each had a chain put around his ankle and a number sewn on his shirt. Guards got khaki uniforms, batons and mirrored sunglasses to reinforce their authority. The guards were instructed not to physically harm the prisoners, but they were allowed, and even encouraged, to strip the prisoners of any sense of individuality, or power. That was about the extent of the training and rules. The guards were allowed to make it up from there.

You can watch “The Stanford Prison Experiment” on Netflix to see what the guards actually did and how the prisoners behaved. For now, just know that they had to end the experiment early because “guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

Afterward, one of the most creative guards said, “Nobody stopped me.” He did horrible, humiliating things to people and no one; no peer, or higher authority said that it was unacceptable or wrong. He was never challenged. The lack of response was taken as tacit approval.

This experiment showed us that expectations and external guidance (or lack thereof) strongly affect behavior. Regular people given largely unchecked power participated in the cruel and inhumane treatment of other human beings. The only difference between guards and prisoners was the flip of a coin.

This got me thinking.

Where in our world do we create similar situations? Certainly, the atrocities of war, the Holocaust, slavery, and Abu Ghraib come to mind. But wait. Isn’t this also what we see at Uber? Isn’t this situation precisely what we have set up in every junior high school in America? What about in our families? I’ve seen adult volunteer organizations devolve into nasty behavior too. How can we keep the Stanford Prison Experiment from playing out in our organizations?

  1. Reward Values

The Stanford Prison Experiment didn’t reward anything. It pointed the guards in a somewhat negative and performance pressured direction and let them decide what to do. Without clear, values-based guidance, some will flounder and some will go off the deep end.

Show your staff what your organization’s version of success is. They will look at people who are deemed successful and emulate their behaviors. This goes for managers and the company leadership. Uber was successful because Travis Kalanick scoffed at rules. There is no way that the company would have been successful without him pushing the limits and even defying legal limitations. One of the traits that Uber regularly rated employees on was “fierceness.” The message to employees was that successful people at Uber ignore rules and limits placed on the rest of us. Unfortunately, that extended to things like sexual harassment. Uber set loose boundaries, rewarded performance, and ignored bad behavior, not unlike the Stanford Prison Experiment. Your organization must act quickly to correct bad behavior and you should never celebrate or promote people who do not follow the company values. Values are more contagious than performance.

Google conducted an analysis to determine the characteristics of their best managers. When they ranked the top eight, coaching, empowering, caring and productivity were at the top of the list. Technical skill came in last. Don’t make your best technical people managers, and never promote someone to management who isn’t top of the class at people skills and communicating your values.

2. Set Clear Expectations

Leave nothing to chance. I’m not talking about just work performance expectations. I’m talking about how you treat people. Onboarding is more than a company t-shirt. Training, mentoring, direct supervisors, co-workers, and team assignments will have early and lasting impacts on employees’ impressions of how they are supposed to behave. Tell them in no uncertain terms what you want as far as values and behaviors. Back them up on it. In junior high, the mean girls rule because nobody sets any expectations for how decent human beings treat each other. Teachers are interacting with 180 kids in one-hour intervals and there is little behavioral guidance. Few peers are willing to speak up against the popular kids. This leads to the tacit approval we saw in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Most Jr. High Schools operate in a psychological Lord of the Flies fashion. Mean girls trick, embarrass, exclude, and even become physically abusive towards those they perceive to have authority over. Teachers and administrators are too distant from everyday interactions to make a difference. You shouldn’t micromanage people’s tasks, but you must be observant and accessible. The official hierarchy must model good behavior. Those seen as leaders must step in to correct bad behavior and reinforce good behavior on a regular basis. Vague guidelines and meaningless platitudes are likely to result in eye rolls. Base your choices for bonuses, awards and promotions on who best exemplifies your desired values and make it known.

Try making a company video once a quarter to highlight the stories of people in your company who go above and beyond to help a colleague or a client. Show it to the whole company and use it in training or orientation, but the key is to message that this is not extraordinary behavior. This is typical behavior. This is who we are.

3. Reinforce expectations in many small, subtle ways

Bonuses, awards, promotions and job assignments are overt ways to communicate what the expectations are in your organization. Find ways to subtly reinforce those through vocabulary and story telling. Make sure that stories about bad behavior at the company end with that person being fired. Tell and promote good stories about staff members that care about each other, clients and suppliers. Use handwritten thank you notes, keep a drawer full of thank you gift cards, and make time weekly to personally thank people. This goes for family too. A small amount of appreciation can go a long way towards encouraging positive behavior. Write a thank you note to your spouse for tackling a big family project. Catch your kid doing a chore without being asked, and immediately take them out for ice cream.

Best of all, find ways to enable and encourage others to reinforce positive values. Make your thank you notes and gift cards available to employees. Pull your kids aside and ask them to find good things their siblings have done for them. Then let the kids give thank-yous or rewards to each other. Use lessons from church or even family movie nights to spur discussion and set expectations.effect

The real lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment is that the environment and expectations have an overwhelming effect on individual behavior. They can squash what we think are steadfast moral and behavioral guidelines. If we do not provide the expectations for our organizations, we enable aggressive, unchecked behavior. That behavior then becomes the norm and the expectation. Leaders have an opportunity, even an obligation, to construct thoughtful psychological and physical environments to guide behavior.

For more info on the experiment, see www.prisonexp.org or watch “The Stanford Prison Experiment” on Netflix.

Jana Spruce is a culture advisor with Spruce Consulting Group. She applies systems thinking and engineering problem-solving techniques to operationalize organizational culture.

“Making the world a better place to work, one organization at a time.”


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