In 1971 a psychological experiment was carried out on college students at Stamford University by a team of researchers led by Philip Zimbardo. The purpose of this infamous research was to explore the causes of conflict between guards and prisoners. The participants were randomly assigned these different roles. Much to everyone’s surprise, the guards and prisoners quickly adapted to their roles. Even though the guards knew they were being observed, their behaviour towards the prisoners became increasingly domineering, abusive and de-humanising. A number of prisoners, who were otherwise stable, suffered emotional breakdowns and the whole experiment was stopped after six days. The experiment demonstrated that normal human behaviour can change dramatically when people are given distinct roles with power and authority. On the positive side, the experiment led to some improvements in how US prisons were managed.
As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” We all play different roles in our lives: as a child, adult or parent, student or teacher, brother or sister, wife, husband or partner, friend, colleague, manager or leader. Roles are about our relationship with others and how we contribute to the values and goals of our family, social life, organisation, or society. Defined roles at work are useful as they provide structure, purpose, and shape what we do and how we work together.
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