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Enhancing Organizational Performance


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“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Evil, for a short word it carries a lot of weight doesn’t it? Evil, it origins, effects, how to avoid etc. has been debated for about as long as humans have existed. One school of thought holds that evil is an absolute, with acts such as murder and rape falling within the definition of things evil. Another school of thought holds that evil has a relativistic definition, meaning what is considered evil changes over time depending on circumstances in the environment. For instance, historically, slavery in the USA was not considered evil by a large group of people who were dependent on its existence for their own well-being (a perfect case of cognitive dissonance if there ever was one).  Slavery today would be considered evil by most, though it is still practiced with an estimated 27 million slaves currently in the world. It is not limited to distant parts of the world but also exists in the USA, with the occasional court case providing a peak into a distasteful underbelly of American life that most of us would like to believe is not there, except that it is. Think about it, as you awoke this morning, had a cup of coffee or tea, your breakfast cereal, 27 million other people woke up as slaves, a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of several countries like Peru, Venezuela, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. What logic could possibly allow one human to think they have a right to enslave another?

Stanley Milgram conducted what was probably the most famous experiment on evil. He designed a study that showed how easy it was to create conditions that made “ordinary” people, people like you and me, people who in their wildest imagination could not conceive themselves as doing evil, do evil. In his experiment people were urged by an authority figure to keep sending an electrical impulse into a victim in the next room as punishment for failing to learn a task. The “victim”, a confederate of the experimenter, could be heard screaming and as the dial was turned up higher and higher, a consequent of the victim continuing to fail at the task, the screams grew louder, finally falling silent as the dial past a mark labeled “lethal”. Many of the people sending shocks into the victim continued to do so, with little to no protests, past the point of lethality. (No one was actually physically hurt in the experiment). Dr. Milgram’s work was done just after the conclusion of WWII as people were trying to figure out how ordinary Germans could behave as the Nazis did. It was a very disturbing study pointing out that many “ordinary” people when placed in a certain environment were capable of doing extreme evil. (I personally did not need an experiment to know that based on some experiences I have had.) But the question was asked, that was then, this is now, certainly people today would not behave the same way. This new younger generation is different and would not blindly follow orders, or so went the thinking. (Who are you trying to kid?) And in a nutshell, a replication of the Milgram study by Jerry Burger published in American Psychologist (January 2009), showed that people have not changed and the pressures that caused them to obey an authority figure in the post WWII environment still work today. No one should have been surprised by that finding.

C.S. Lewis in the “Inner Ring” (1944), writes, “in all men’s lives…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside….Of all the passions, the passions for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” What he was describing are the pressures that the social animal called Homo Sapiens feel to belong, not to feel excluded. For social animals feeling excluded is one of the more powerful punishments that can be given, driving people to behave in a manner that when later objectively examined looks evil. Being evil of course is not a binary condition, with your behavior being either saintly or evil, rather evil exists like many other things along a continuum.  So while there may be certain behaviors that are “inherently” evil, there are many others that are subject to interpretation and viewpoint, a view that may change the definition of evil over time and is dependent upon the society in which you reside.

Phillip Zimbardo in the “Lucifer Effect” describes in extreme detail the findings from his famous Sanford Prison Experiment. In that experiment he randomly assigned people into one of two categories, prisoners and guards. In short order during the course of the experiment the “prisoners” began to act like prisoners and the “guards” developed all of the worst behaviors you would expect from prison guards, including those that an objective observer would likely describe as evil. The experiment had to be cut off ahead of schedule as the “simulated” environment was proving to be detrimental to the mental health of the subjects. These behaviors were being generated from people who had no criminal record and had been tested to insure that were psychologically sound, or at least as sound as you or I.

On January 22, 2009 a Chinese court handed down death sentences for two businessmen who were convicted of intentionally selling dairy products laced with melamine that resulted in the deaths of at least 6 children. Others were given lengthy prison sentences. Clearly this was evil behavior, right? What if the businessmen did not know that the melamine was harmful and all they were doing is selling adulterated products, simply thinking that none of their customers would ever know. Would that be just as evil? In other words does doing evil necessitate the realization that you are doing evil or is doing unintentional evil just as bad as doing intentional evil? The Chinese government itself is accused of covering up the incident until after the completion of the Olympic Games, an interval that could have potentially led to the deaths of more children. Evil? Or did it serve the greater good to have a “harmonious” Olympic experience, showcasing the goodness that is in China? Is a lack of transparency evil? Lack of transparency has been cited as lack of trustworthiness by 24/7 Wall St. in this article on the least trustworthy companies in America.

John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch, who sold his company to Bank of America at the urging of and with financial assistance from the federal government, was forced out of his job when it became clear that the losses of Merrill Lynch were going to keep growing and now threaten Bank of America’s very existence. With the assistance of the USA taxpayers, Mr. Thain redecorated his NYC office to the tune of 1.2 million dollars. He delivered, ahead of schedule, bonuses to the employees of Merrill Lynch before Bank of American could do anything about it thereby increasing the risk to Bank of America and putting more of the USA taxpayer’s money at risk. There are rumors that he asked for a sizable bonus for himself. For an incredibly smart guy, is this simply incredibly poor judgment or could it be characterized as evil? In his head could he not make the connection between his actions and the future success or failure of Bank of America, the risk in which he was placing hundreds of thousands of jobs or did he simply think he would not get caught?

Bernie Madoff, the “supposed” investor who was actually running a ponzi scheme was clearly evil, as his action have destroyed the financial well being of thousands of individuals and charitable organizations forcing some to close and a number of individuals to commit suicide from despondency. My guess is that he will be found to be manifesting psychopathic symptoms as I don’t know how else someone would be able to maintain that fraud for such a long period of time. Is your behavior evil if you are mentally ill? Or by definition are all evil behaviors carried out by mentally ill people? Other executives who were likely sure that they were doing the “right” thing or would not get caught would include those from Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc. Were their actions evil, extremely poor judgments, and manifestations of mental illness, extreme arrogance, or simply conforming to peer pressure, going along with the group in order to feel part of the Inner Ring?

Future generations might look back at us and ask how we as a society could have been so evil as to allow the earth to degrade as we did, causing an uncertain future to unfold for them. Didn’t we care about our children, our descendents? How could we allow segments of our society today to go through life as second class citizens, denying them the rights that others are allowed to enjoy? Isn’t that evil? Will we look back at some of our actions after 9/11 and question whether or not we as a society allowed evil to occur? Torture? The degradation of our civil liberties? Isn’t that what the founding fathers fought for in the first place?  I could list out atrocities that are happening in various corners of the world and many people would agree that the actions that are occurring in those varying places are evil. But it rapidly becomes an overwhelming list.

The sad part is that most, if not all of us have within us the capacity for evil, causing harm to another individual, if placed in an environment that brings it forth. But most of us if not all of us also have the capacity to do good if placed in an environment that brings that forth. (We will exclude those with psychopathology). Paying attention, being consciously aware of the consequences of your actions and constantly questioning the rationale for why certain things are done or why certain rules exist is one way to help prevent evil. If we start small, one step at a time, perhaps we can begin to move the dial on how we treat each other and the degree of harm we intentionally or unintentionally cause each other. But that will happen only if we want it to.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2009 at 11:36 am

4 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    What behaviors or suggested actions should be characterized as evil?

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    March 6, 2016 at 8:18 am

  2. How would you characterize the behavior of the Governor of Michigan and members of the Federal and state
    Government who knew children in Flint were being poisoned and said nothing about it? Were they evil?

    Walter Reichman

    March 7, 2016 at 12:20 pm

  3. […] Adherence to authority figures – Stanley Milgram […]

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