The Problem With Complete Compliance in the Workplace

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TapeWhen you were hired for your current job, there’s a good chance you went through compliance training, during which you were likely shown all the rules and regulations of your workplace, how to best follow them, and what happens when you break protocol. Understanding the rules of the workplace — and how to work within them — means bettering your understanding of where you work. It’s important that every worker at an organization be on the same page when it comes to conduct.

This kind of compliance is all fine and good, and it’s HR’s job to make sure that everyone is following the rules (and laws) of the workplace. But there’s a different kind of compliance that can be a problem: the kind of compliance that involves the creation of a culture where one must follow all the rules at all time, no matter the consequences of following those rules. The most famous example of this kind of compliance is the Milgram experiment, a scientific study performed in the 1960s, the results of which are still debated and discussed to this very day.

Milgram’s Experiment

The experiment goes like this: Three people — an experimenter, a subject/”teacher”, and a learner — are placed in a room. The learner and the “teacher” are supposed to learn word pairs. If the learner gets an answer wrong, the “teacher” is supposed to shock him with a series of escalating shocks. The “teacher” is the real guinea pig, however: the learner is in on the experiment, and there aren’t any actual shocks. Instead, the learner responds to the “shocks” with wilder and wilder reactions.

The experiment was designed to test how far the subject would go when told to continue, regardless of the learner’s reactions to the supposed shocks. The initial numbers reported that 65 percent of the subjects tested administered all 20 shocks required of them, but this statistic has been called into question a few times over the years.

The numbers might be a little fuzzy — and the study may be harder to replicate nowadays, because of restrictions on human subject research — but recent versions of this experiment have shown that under the right circumstances, people will perform acts they’d otherwise never consent to.

The Cult of Nice and the Good Side of Conflict

Where the results of the Milgram experiment affect business is in the world of ideas and the realm of what managers are able to get away with. If a worker is told to always do as a manager says, it prevents the worker from giving their own input on situations. This leads to hierarchies where the higher-ups are never questioned. According to the Boston Research Group, 43 percent of workers see their workplace as being entirely “top-down,” meaning the managers have all the authority and workers have little say when they disagree. Another 54 percent of employees report experiencing the same management style, but with one crucial difference: they trust that the people running the show know what they’re doing and will make the right decisions.

A completely agreeable workplace can lead to what Heather Bussing calls “the Cult of Nice“:

“You know you are in a workplace full of cult members when there are very polite printed signs everywhere with little flowers or smiley faces instructing you to put your dishes in the dishwasher, flush the toilet, and label your food in the office refrigerator. Cult members are also the first to send you a gentle reminder (turn you in) when you forget to conform to their rules. After all, no one can dispute that flushing the toilet is a good thing, and everyone should do it.”

This culture of agreeableness is bad for business in the long run: a recent study from Psychometrics Canada reports that disputes in the workplace can lead to better solutions for difficult problems, major innovations in the workplace, and higher team performance.

This isn’t to say that compliance training shouldn’t be part of hiring new employees; rather, along with all the rules and expectations of the workplace, new hires should be taught to speak up when they disagree with something, whether it’s the opinions of their bosses or harmful groupthink. A good organization will take this input and further improve the workplace, rather than fear it as an insurgence. Saying “No” at the right time can be more helpful than saying “Yes” to everything.

By Suriel Vasquez