Thursday, February 10, 2011

The effect of obedience pressure

(Milgram, 1963), (Milgram, 1965) and (Milgram, 1974) notes that individuals who experience pressure to obey a command made by the principal (obedience pressure) can blindly perform their job even though the command is contrary to their attitudes, beliefs and values. This behavior results from a psychological change in the individual from an autonomous state to an agentic state.5 This psychological shift leads agents to feel no responsibility for their performed action, since any unfavorable consequences can be transferred back to the superior who directed them to perform the action. Numerous studies ([DeZoort and Lord, 1994] and [Lord and DeZoort, 2001]) have recognized the adverse effect of obedience pressure, particularly in the context of public accountants' evaluation judgments. For example, DeZoort and Lord (1994) find that public accountants exhibit a tendency to compromise their professional norms and standards when they are subject to obedience pressure from superiors. In another study, Lord and DeZoort, 2001 A.T. Lord and F.T. DeZoort, The impact of commitment and moral reasoning on auditors' responses to social influence pressure, Accounting, Organizations and Society 26 (2001), pp. 215–235. Article |  PDF (197 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (26)Lord and DeZoort (2001) find that the presence of obedience pressure significantly affects public accountants' decisions to sign off on materially misstated account balances, in comparison with those who do not experience such pressure.

Attribution theory provides an explanation as to why individuals faced with obedience pressure do not feel responsible for their actions ([Harrison et al., 1988], [Jansen and von Glinow, 1985] and [Kaplan and Reckers, 1985]). It is argued that individuals who commit acts that violate normatively correct performance standards tend to externalize attribution to others or environmental factors. For example, Kaplan and Reckers (1985) find that auditors with a good working history tend to externalize their failure to situational factors. Harrison et al. (1988) suggest that agents tend to emphasize the role of other individuals and environmental factors on their behavior; they will attribute failure to these factors, especially if the failure has an impact on their self-worth. Therefore when Harrison et al. (1988) examined the effect of attributional tendency between superiors and subordinates within production variance investigations, they found that when unfavorable production variance occurs, the subordinates tend to attribute this failure externally (e.g. saying that other subordinates have also frequently made the same mistakes).

Given the above discussion, we propose that project managers who experience obedience pressure will have a higher tendency to increase their commitment to a failing project, since any negative consequences flowing from this decision can be attributed or transferred back to the authority. When obedience pressure is absent, however, project managers are less likely to exhibit escalation behavior, since there is no existing psychological justification, nor external attribution strategies, available to enable such behavior. Stated formally:


Project managers who are subject to obedience pressure will exhibit a greater tendency to continue a failing project than project managers who are not subject to obedience pressure.