This documentary explored why normal everyday people do horrible things or allow horrible things to happen; and consequently how tyranny arises out of ordinary societies.

These lessons are relevant to organisations too.

It takes five steps to create tyranny in a given group of people:

  1. Inculcate an “us” versus “them” situation. Those who are with “us” are in the “In.” Those who are not are in the “out.” We are superior and thus entitled. They are inferior and probably not even human.Narcissists are very good at using their charisma to divide a group in this manner.
  2. Diminish and dehumanise “them.” Deny them their personhood. When they are not even human, we don’t have to treat them a such. This frees us from the golden rule to treat others as we would like to be treated. Recent Australian prime ministers have used exactly this technique to win votes by dehumanising asylum seekers.
  3. Obey orders without question. We are just doing our jobs. We don’t make the rules. We can’t go against what everyone else is doing. This absolves us from all personal responsibility. We are then free to act without consequence. This is readily observed In traditionally conformative and culturally conservative societies.
  4. Establish an unquestionable truth. Religions for example suppress dissent with harsh punishments for heresy and apostasy. If you are not for us (by believing absolutely and without question), then you must be against us. Without dissent, discourse is impossible. And this makes it easier to people to just go along with whatever they are told.
  5. Suppress individuality. When individual identity is subsumed into group identity, it reduces dissent in the ranks. People are more likely to do as they are told without question. Apocalyptic cults do this very well, to the point where mass suicide becomes a reasonable and acceptable act.

Tyranny in an organisation will inevitably stifle creativity, erode collaboration, destroys quality and undermine resilience.

Such a culture can also cause people to literally die. When an airline’s tyrannical culture sets up the captain as the unquestioned infallible master of a cockpit, it diminishes the likelihood of a copilot pointing out a grave mistake that could have deadly consequences. Malcolm Gladwell said so here.

Just like citizens will flee a tyranny, employees will leave a tyrannical organisational culture. This upheaval can only further undermine the ongoing viability of the organisation.

I think it is quite obvious what needs to be done to watch out for and mitigate any such deterioration of an organisation’s culture.

The real challenge is for people, including and especially the leaders, to stand up and point out the need. It doesn’t help when the leaders are the very ones instigating the tyranny. Dare we do it when the time comes?