Obedience , “The Lottery” & Organisational Change

“Although the villagers has forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.”
– Shirley Jackson, “ The Lottery”

All of us get influenced by society, one such social influence is obedience- act of obeying orders from authority figure. From birth we are used to taking orders from teachers, parents, elders, bosses etc.

Lot of studies have been done on obedience. Starting from Nazism where ordinary Germans, who were loving parents to their children, but actively participated in killing of Jews. Their justification was they were just obeying orders of Nazi leaders.


Some more experiments proved that most of us obey authority against our will and are reluctant to question authority.

In one experiment- Milligram experiment- teachers were asked to administer electric shock to students in case they gave wrong answer, the magnitude of shock varied from 15 volts to 450 volts. Teachers could not see the students but could hear them. While teachers were fully aware than anything above 300 volts was life threatening they did not hesitate to administer shock of very high magnitude- 450 volts to students when they were urged by authorities. Of course the shock was fake, but teachers were not aware of it.


In another experiment- Hofling hospital experiment- 22 nurses were randomly selected and got call from one “Doctor Smith” who asked them give patients 20 mg of fictitious drug called “Astroten”, it was not an approved drug and the label on drug clearly mentioned that maximum dosage was 10 mg. The nurses instead of using logic (ex. checking credentials of doctor, sticking to rule of hospital were only authorised medicine was to be given that too as per prescribed dosage) were ready to give injection to patients, just because orders came from a doctor. The volunteers stopped nurses just before giving injections.


Shirley Jackson wrote a short story called as “The Lottery”. In a village in America, they have a ritual wherein once in a year, they put blank chits in a black box (expect one chit which has black circle on it) and heads of family have to pick up chit from box; family head that gets chit with black circle is eligible for next round. Next round is for members of that family and member who picks up chit with black circle is “winner”- the winner is killed by all the villages with stones! Nobody remembers how that cruel ritual started, what was the reason behind it etc.; they never question it (those who do are censured by village elders), they just blindly followed the ritual. Even when the victim- in this case a lady called Tessie Hutchinson- is getting killed she feels that her selection was unfair, but does not question the ritual itself.


In many organisations status quo is not questioned, because of our tendency to obey authority. That allows authoritative bosses to continue with policies, privileges, processes which no longer benefits organisation (but benefits bosses). Obedience is one of the biggest barriers to organisational change.

Change agents sometimes give up when they start facing resistance from those in senior level who are in favour of status quo. While majority of the employees may agree that they need change, they are unwilling to challenge authority.

ob cartoon


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