The Agentic Personality


Milgram’s work is a reminder that too many of us depend on responsibility-avoiding locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

The recent film Experimenter (2015) dramatizes the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who was interested in the seemingly fixed tendency of humans to shift responsibility for harmful acts up the chain of command.  Milgram is well known for his “shock box” experiments at Yale University in the early 1960s.  In this iconic study volunteer “teachers” were recruited and instructed to ask true/false questions to unseen “learners” in an adjoining room.  Any wrong answer given by the learner was to be followed by electric shocks administered by the teacher.  If the volunteer teachers expressed alarm over the shouts of pain coming from the next room, they were instructed by the white-coated experimenter to proceed.  This was usually followed by a reassurance that the researcher would take responsibility for the entire process. And so over two thirds of his volunteers proceeded to inflict seemingly lethal doses of electricity on the learner.

Of course the learner was not actually hooked up to the shock box.  He was an actor.  But the teachers did not know that, nor did they understand that they were the experimental subjects. Milgram was testing their willingness to carry out instructions issued by a superior, even when the effect of the shocks they were supposedly administering were harmful.

No Institutional Review Board at any university in the United States would ever allow this kind of research today. Volunteers cannot be put in this kind stressful state. But the Milgram studies remain as stark testimony to the willingness of seemingly decent people to comply when credible authorities take responsibility for indefensible actions against others.

Milgram was one is a long line of thinkers and researchers on the origins of German acceptance of the exterminations going on within the Third Reich.  All wondered why otherwise decent people could be so easily induced into lethal compliance.

Agentic personalities may assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. 

The short answer is that we seem to regard higher authority as a kind of shelter:  they can be responsible for decisions that they want to enforce. One effect is that questioning the morality of a “job duty” seems to get lost in the comfort of just “doing the work,” “doing what I’m told,” or “respecting the decisions of my bosses.”

Luckily, most encounters with mid-level functionaries do not come with such lethal risks to others.  But we can still imagine the urge to comply that so easily happens within the middle of the chain of command.  And so Milgram’s work is also a cautionary tale of how many individuals spend their working lives dependent on locutions like “I’m just doing my job.”

He calls individuals who find comfort in these caveats “agentic personalities.”  They assume no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  And so paperwork must be filled out before an emergency room patient who may be bleeding out can be admitted.  An office supervisor insists on a performance review for a person who is about to retire. Or a pre-9/11 trade school registrar never thinks to inquire why a man wants to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but not land it.  Functionaries in these roles find a degree of psychological shelter in the belief that they are acting in accord with their required job-role.  After all, it’s “the boss” who is really in charge.

But here’s the kicker.  In the Milgram study there was no requirement to comply.  Volunteers could quit if they didn’t like what they had to do. Even so, most stayed to the bitter end.

‘Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Worse’

The rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often rule-makers measure success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  

I am optimistic by nature.  But that optimism doesn’t extend to organizational life.  As time passes, even very good organizations seem to have natural tendencies to layer their rules and procedures with ever more layers.  Rules and procedures are rarely streamlined.  Instead, they are supplemented.  If policies and guidelines are burdensome now, just wait a few years.  They will be even more numerous.

This tendency is equivalent to the process of ‘lawyering up’ that has happened in many corporations and institutions over the last decades.  As the law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz noted, a common litigation strategy is “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that an organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too risky and time-consuming.  The more the other side is papered, the more it is encumbered by procedures and rules.

I’ve written about this “papering” process before. In hindsight it seems as durable an organizational impulse as any. Even though paper has been replaced by online files, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.” Indeed, our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, evaluators, consultants, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, ethics officers, assistant managers, quality-assurance advisors, contract law specialists and others–some with the kind of obsessive-compulsive tendencies that would be recognized in a mental health facility.

Rules function in part to mystify others into compliance.  It seems their attractiveness comes from the very human need to impose behavioral norms on others. I used to think of a bureaucracy’s love of forms functioned for its own sake.  But it seems more likely that this feature of modern life flows from an interest in exercising power and control.  That need blinds us to the advantages of individual initiative.  “I’ll get the task done on time” has too often been replaced by the question, “What rubric should I follow?”  The quick jump to deference to procedure is a smoother pathway to organizational success.  And who does not like to suggest that their procedures ought to be followed by everybody?

The compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists to reverse the process.

Organizational culture naturally seeks uniformity, which is not always always a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to “paper” the rest of us.  And so most of my colleagues spend more of their working time completing forms, documenting their work, submitting to endless reviews, and attending less-than-essential meetings where more procedures can be dreamed up. My campus has 110 active  ‘memorandas of agreement’ that faculty and staff are supposed to follow to the letter. A colleague in health care similarly reports that paperwork from the insurance industry is turning into an endless tsunami of requests for even more documentation.  Who has time for patients?

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of regulations.  New procedures stack up like layers of ocean sediment.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called this tendency to over-produce regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the redefinition of professional success as compliance rather than initiative.