The Power of Our Work Environment


Whether the HR Practitioner realized it or not, he or she is often thrown into the seat of the uncertified social psychologist as he or she continuously works in the frontline. The organization seeks him or her out on matters related to human behaviors.

Often our perception as HR practitioners is limited to viewing the individuals as the culprits of misbehaviors. However, there were numerous incidences in my work life that prompted me to think that there are other factors at work. This included the situation and the system.

An simple example is a difficult customer service situation, the customer service representative (person) is not trained to handle the situation and is not empowered by the standard operating procedure (system) to deal with the situation.

As HR practitioner, we should be mindful that we arrange for specific situations to happen at the workplace and we develop policies and procedures that form part of the system that people working in organizations operate. I came across numerous HR practitioners that have fallen to the traps of the Lucifer Effect. That is the power of the work environment. This is an important finding for Organizational Development experts.

Dr Phil Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect

Dr Phil Zimbardo found that the mind has an infinite capacity to make us behave:

  • Kind or cruel.
  • Caring or indifferent
  • Creative or destructive
  • And make us villains; or heroes

He quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saying “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” He explained that it means that line is not out there. That’s a decision that you have to make. That’s a personal thing.

The same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination in some of us making us perpetrators of evil, can also inspire the heroic imagination in others.


Good Cop Bad Cop

Source: New Yorker Cartoon by Mick Stevens

Stanley Milgram’s Experiment (Year 1963)

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

The Stanley Milgram Experiment was created to explain some of the concentration camp-horrors of the World War 2, where Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs and other enemies of the state were slaughtered by Nazis.

Stanley Milgram concluded in his book “Obedience to Authority” that “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Milgram (1974) explained the behavior of his participants by suggesting that people actually have two states of behavior when they are in a social situation:

  • The autonomous state– people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.
  • The agentic state– people allow others to direct their actions, and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.

You might want to know that there are controversies regarding both his methods and conclusions.


Stanford Prison Experiment

The other experiment is the Stanford Prison Experiments ran by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. This is a study of the power of institutions to influence individual behavior. The experiment tried to answer the question “What will happen to good people when we put them into bad situations?”

In this experiment, he found what he called the “7 social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil”. Given new and unfamiliar situations, circumstances (situations) can cause ordinary and decent people to do wrongful and cruel deeds in the following ways:

  • Mindlessly taking the first small step.
  • Dehumanization of others.
  • De-individuation of self (anonymity).
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility.
  • Blind obedience to authority.
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms.
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference.

It occurs more in new and unfamiliar situations because:

  • Your habitual response patterns don’t work.
  • Your personality and morality are disengaged.

Dr Zimbardo pointed out that if you give people power without oversight, it is a prescription for abuse. The answer lies in recognizing the situational and systemic vectors of hostility as a disease.

Stanford Prison

Source: The Stanford Prison Experiment (

Dr Philip Zimbardo’ Definition of Evil

Dr Philip Zimbardo defines Evil as the exercise of power (for example positional authority) to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), and / or destroy (mortally) and commit crimes against humanity.

When something bad happens, people at the top will typically respond in these ways:

  • The message that gave is that what happened must be the work of a few bad apples.
  • The first thing that they want to find out is who are the culprits.

Phil Zimbardo pointed out that the correct question to ask should be – What is responsible: It could be the “who” of people or the situational force in the behavioral context

He also pointed out that there are 3 factors affects the transformations of decent people to hostile people

  • Dispositional – Inside of individuals: the bad apples
  • Situational – External: the bad barrel
  • Systemic – Broad influences: the bad barrel makers

He pointed out that the system creates the situations that corrupt the individual. He pointed out that:

  • It is a dynamic interplay between the 3 factors: what is the people bringing into the system; what is the situation bringing out of them; what is the system that creates and maintains that situation.
  • The power is in the system.
  • The system is the legal, political, economic and cultural background.
  • If you want to change the person; you have to change the system and if you want to change the system, you have to know where the power is in the system.

The 3 questions that we should ask about the impact of the work environment:

  • What do the people bring into the situation?
  • What does the situation bring out of them?
  • What is the system that creates and maintains that situation?