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Beware of Drift

Part I

“Instructors were body checking guys into ditches during the road march.”

“I remember getting punched in the nose by my squad leader.”

“I was shoved into a wall-locker and pushed down a flight of stairs.”

Each quote above is from a different soldier describing his experiences with hazing early in his career. Although these are relatively brutal examples from a culture known to be physically aggressive, similar examples exist across industries. Nearly everyone has a story of someone taking advantage of their power. This is known in the psychology world as behavioral drift, and if left unchecked, it can be an insidious cancer for any organization.

The term behavioral drift was coined by psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo after his famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. At that time, U.S. prisons were under scrutiny due to reports of prison guards abusing prisoners. Zimbardo wanted to study whether the prison guards who abused prisoners were in fact bad people or if it was the prison environment that led to the human rights violations. In other words, he wanted to know if immoral behavior was dispositional or situational.

On a Sunday morning in Palo Alto, California, a police car swept through town arresting “suspects” who were volunteers for the study. These individuals were taken to the local precinct, booked, and transported to “prison” which was the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department. There, the prisoners met an equal number of prison guards, also volunteers for the study. The role of prisoner or prison guard had been previously determined by the flipping of a coin. The prison guards were given no specific training by Zimbardo. They were simply told to do whatever was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners.

Initially, neither prisoner nor prison guard knew exactly how to act. However, that changed when the prisoners staged a rebellion and one of the guards responded by spraying them with chilling carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. That toe dipped in the puddle of mischievousness would represent an eventual dive into the pool of depravity.

The punishments began to escalate. Prisoners were stripped naked, they lost personal hygiene privileges, and they were prohibited from eating. Guards made prisoners urinate and defecate in buckets kept in their cells without the ability to empty them. Less than 36 hours into the experiment, one prisoner broke emotionally and opted to quit. Zimbardo, who was acting as the prison warden, thought this was a ploy to get released early and denied the request sending the participant into a full-blown panic. At this point, Zimbardo himself had started to become immersed into his role.

Finally, upon observing the experiment, one of Zimbardo’s colleagues expressed her shock at what was happening and protested the experiment as unethical. Her reaction pulled Zimbardo from his immersion causing him to discontinue the study. It had been six days. The experiment was originally scheduled for two weeks.

In most cases, behavioral drift starts with a single act that is outside of acceptable standards. For the prison guards, it was likely the use of the fire extinguisher to control the prisoner riot. That act paves the way for another that is slightly more egregious than the first, and so on. Most organizational scandals aren’t planned at their inception. Enron executives probably didn’t wake up one day and decide to commit corporate fraud. Most start with a single act that deviates from organizational, and oftentimes ethical, norms and then snowballs out of control.

If drift is indeed more situational than it is dispositional, then what can organizational leaders do to prevent it?

See Beware of Drift, Part II for solutions.

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