Photo from HolocaustResearchProject.org
In July, Bruno Dey, at the age of 93, was found guilty of 5230 counts of accessory to murder. Dey had served as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp for 9 months, until April 1945. He was tried in juvenile court, because he was 17 years old at the time his crimes began.
During his trial, Dey’s attorney Stefan Waterkamp argued for acquittal, claiming it wasn’t his choice to be a guard and to have resisted duty would have been a threat to his own safety. He asked, “How could an 18-year-old step out of line in a situation like that?” The judge was not sympathetic to the argument, declaring that Dey’s duty was to honor human dignity at all costs, even at the cost of his own safety.
When George Floyd was killed by a knee to his neck, two of the police officers who restrained him were new to the force, having completed their probationary period just four days before. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane were charged with aiding and abetting. Lane’s lawyer said, “What was my client supposed to do but to follow his training officer’s orders? He was doing everything he thought he was supposed to do.” When interviewed by investigators, Lane remarked, “Once he kind of stopped fighting us, I think I had said again, ‘I think we should roll him over on his side.’” Lane recognized things had gone wrong, and he may have spoken out. But his strength of his convictions would not let him disobey his training officer.
Anybody who has studied psychology is familiar with the Milgram experiment, where a subject (the teacher) administered a test to an accomplice (the learner). When the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher subjected them to what they believed was an electric shock, increasing the voltage to dangerous levels and hearing the acting learner’s painful reaction. Quickly, the teacher reached a point where they are uncomfortable administering the shocks. But an authority figure (the experimenter) told them to continue with the shocks. And they did.
We see the subservience to authority as part of human nature. Even when faced with an obvious moral wrong, many will submit to the direction of authority. Particularly when that authority is "on our team." To quote Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." How can you empower your employees to act with moral courage and to do the right thing even if it means disobeying, disappointing, and risking ostracism or job status?
It comes from establishing a culture that values courageous acts, celebrates them and rewards them. Not just including COURAGE in a list of corporate values, but showing employees that acting with conviction, even if unpopular, need not penalize you. ("Ten points to Gryffindor!") At a minimum, you need a robust whistleblower policy. But what I am talking about is at the heart of an organization's diversity and inclusion effort; it is the recognition that you are enriched by other points of view. It comes with a realization that pointing out shortcomings or saying, "This is wrong" is good for the company. And, as an act of courage in itself, it might require leaders to admit to being wrong or to not seeing the full picture, when confronted with an act of defiance with moral underpinnings.
Before assuming it’s too much to ask that a German guard or a Minneapolis cop should have acted differently when facing a moral wrong, consider what our military and progressive police organizations have in place. Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that it is a dereliction of duty to disobey any lawful general order or regulation. If it's determined that an order is unlawful, the UCMJ provides a moral and legal obligation to the Constitution, rather than to obey unlawful orders and the people who issue them. The Department of Defense also spells out what violations to submit in a whistleblower complaint. The New Orleans Police Department has developed a program called Ethical Policing is Courageous (EPIC), which defines teamwork as the inclusion of intervention to stop a harmful action. Recruits are taught it's their duty to prevent another officer from engaging in misconduct, even a more senior officer.
Yes, an immoral order might be legal. But my point is that even in an organization dependent on discipline, there is room for moral courage. Building the desired values into training is a critical part of acculturation. If organizations that routinely deal with stress and authority like the military or police can value courageous behavior, so can your company.
Corporate cultures that embrace moral courage might find that other forms of courage will flourish, as well. I am unaware of studies backing up a correlation, but it is not too much to expect that the company that celebrates people standing up for what’s right will empower them to be courageous in innovation, in selling and in leadership positions. After all, being a leader means making unpopular decisions at times, doing what is right when it’s not easy. And part of leadership may be making it easier for others to act with moral courage.
P.S. On Aug 26, 2020 the Milwaukee Bucks chose to boycott their playoff game, in response to another episode of an unarmed Black man being shot by a police officer, this time in Kenosha, WI. Soon, the players on the other five teams involved in playoff games that night chose not to play. WNBA players followed suit, as did the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team. This was a peaceful, potent way to say, "This is wrong." You can argue that it is the power NBA players hold to impact ratings that allowed this response. They are in a more privileged spot than a cop on his fourth day. I think it is more involved than this. Team ownership and management have repeatedly expressed support for social justice issues. Many of the same people own the WNBA franchises, whose TV ratings don't make a ripple. This seems more like an effort at solidarity around organizational culture than a reversal in the traditional balance of power.
What do you think?
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