Yin and Yang

Yin Yang blankYou’ll probably be familiar with the ‘Yin – Yang’ symbol – a circle that is half black and half white, with a black and a white dot in each of the opposing ‘tear drop shaped’ halves.

So, where does it come from and what does it mean?1

As I understand it, the symbol can be traced back to ancient China and its meaning is utilised in the Eastern Philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.

The symbol represents the idea that the universe, and what lies within, is governed by duality – sets of two opposing and yet complimentary forces.

These forces are not total opposites – they are relative to each other, two sides of the same coin. They don’t, and can’t, exist on their own. They are inter-related parts of a bigger whole.

Some examples:

  • Light and dark
  • Alive, and not2
  • Masculine and feminine
  • Good and bad
  • Asleep and awake
  • Hot and cold
  • Rest and movement
  • Front and back
  • …and we could keep on going!

Further, the two dots ‘within’ each half represent the idea that everything contains the seed of its opposite.

Given this duality, we are best to learn from both the Yin and the Yang, and their inter-relatedness3.


Why am I writing this post? Well, I feel the need to point out – and open up – what I see as a duality.

Over the years I’ve been very aware of how many (most?) organisations, and their management systems, have dwelt on ‘the individual’:

  • ‘Here’s your target’ and ‘Here’s your score’
  • ‘Well done, here’s a pat on the back’ or ‘Must try harder’
  • ‘Here are your values…and the attitude you must adopt’
  • ‘It’s your personal responsibility to succeed and progress’
  • ‘Do the right thing!’
  • …and on and on

Further, much of the work of Deming, Seddon and other giants of mine has been to help organisations move away from focusing on (and usually ‘judging’) the individual and, instead, to work on the system that the individual is working within.

Some classic quotes fit here:

“95% of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to the deficiencies in the system rather than the employee…the role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.” (Deming)

“People’s behaviour is a product of the system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in their behaviour.” (Seddon)

“A bad system beats a good person every time.” (Deming)

It’s the system, stupid!” (Seddon)

I strongly agree with the messages within the above quotes (and the accompanying bodies of work). However, I consider that we need to retain a focus on the individual, as well as massively working on the environment in which ’we’ work. But such a focus would be to help the individual rather than judge them.

This isn’t a criticism of Deming, Seddon etc. I expect that they would agree.

Two ‘angles’ interest me in this regard:

‘Individual A’ that comes to believe that, if it’s about ‘the system’, then it’s not really ‘their’ problem…so they’ll sit back and wait for ‘others’ (usually up the hierarchy) to ‘solve’ the system; and conversely

‘Individual B’ that really grasps that it’s about the system; takes a huge responsibility (burden) on their shoulders to ‘move’ the system; and then experiences great stress (and potentially depression) from limited successes.

So I’d like to bring it all back to a duality – the individual and the environment they are in.

The Yin – Our environment:

Yin halfI run a 2-day course based around Deming’s theory of profound knowledge. The psychology part includes some powerful considerations in respect of social psychology.

We discuss three of the classic experiments regarding the power of ‘being in a world of others’ (i.e. our environments):

  • Solomon Asch’s 1951 ‘peer pressure’ experiment on an individual’s strong urge to conform (fit in) with those around them, where this power can be stronger than their personal values or basic perceptions.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1963 behavioural study on Obedience to Authority, where people do what they are told to, even where this conflicts with their personal values.
  • Philip Zimbardo’s 1972 ‘Stanford Prison’ experiment, where the existence (or not) of power led people to adopt abusive (or submissive) behaviours.

The reason for discussing these (in)famous experiments is to open people’s eyes to the huge power of the environment that people are working (and living) within, and that, if we work on getting our environment(s)4 ‘right’ then great things can happen5….and conversely, if we get it wrong, we end up fighting each other for survival.

However, the environment is only part of the picture. It is made up of individuals within, capable of making choices

It must be, else why would the system be ‘as it is’…and how could it be changed?

The Yang – Us as individuals:

Yang halfA (social) environment is made up of individuals.

Some of the nature of that environment is because of how individuals behave within it. Some of it comes from outside forces.

I think that it’s worth constantly thinking about, and working on, the things that ‘I’ (i.e. the individual) can control…and calmly coping with the things that I cannot.

  • I know that there are some huge system constraints as to why the current system(s) work as they do.
  • I know that they won’t change overnight, just because I ‘pointed them out’ or even because I (and others) tried to do something about them.

In terms of my role within:

  • I can choose to think about and (try to) modify my actions and behaviours
  • I can choose to ponder how to go about this
  • I can choose to persevere, or to pivot – to try different strategies and tactics as I learn what doesn’t seem to work.
  • I can choose my attitude about what is before me, and what to do about it.

Attempting to do this is not easy (it takes much thought and constant practice) but it is worthwhile (with meaning).

As an aside: If you want to know more about achieving meaningful change of a system, then you might want to read about normative change.

On Meaning

Victor FranklOne of the most renowned books written which considers, in part, the subject of attitude is Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’.

The first half of the book describes his terrible experiences as a prisoner spanning three years across four Nazi concentration camps. To put it mildly, it’s not pleasant BUT it is a hugely important piece of work. At his liberation in 1945 all but one of his close family members had died/ been killed.

He pondered much on what could be learned from his experiences. Who had survived? Who had not? And perhaps why? And, in his writings, he provided us with much to contemplate:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

But why would we choose one way over another?

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities …that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

What about trying to ignore our circumstances? Frankl reflects on many who took this approach:

“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…

…but in robing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger…instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength…they preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past.

Life for such people became meaningless.”

And, sadly, Frankl’s experience was that those who came to a point without meaning gave up living soon after.

Thankfully, our lives don’t come even close to that of Frankl’s. This fact makes his reflections even more powerful. If lessons on meaning and attitude apply even in a ‘hell on earth’ then they most certainly apply to our ‘ordinary lives’.

Frankl quotes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his summing up:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” and

“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

In short:

  • be clear on meaning (what is your longer-term, valuable-to-society, purpose?)
  • work through the constant challenges that you most certainly will encounter on the way
  • If you move onwards ‘knowing why’, then you can use this to ‘keep yourself grounded’ on the bumpy journey ahead.

Note: This line of thinking opens a related topic, which I hope to write about in a follow-up post in respect of resilience. It’s all very well ‘telling ourselves’ to be resilient, but some help in being so might be useful.

 Back to that duality:

B=fPEGoing back to one of the early social psychologists, Kurt Lewin, we find that he clearly saw the duality. He expressed it as a simple equation:

‘Behaviour is a function of the person in their environment.’

The equation has two variables: you, and your environment. One doesn’t exist without the other.

Yes, the environment can have a HUGE influence on you and I…but there is a capability within us (the individual) to choose (to a degree) what we think, and do, about it.

Further, within every individual is the seed of their environment influencing them and within every (social) environment there is the seed of the individual able to influence it right back!


1. Yin and Yang explanation: Here’s a nice short 4 min. animated video that explains at a deeper level: Yin & Yang TED Ed video by John Bellaimey

2. Alive, and not: I’ve deliberately not written ‘life and death’ because the duality is much more than this. There was also a HUGE period of time (circa. 4 billion years) that I wasn’t alive before I was born.

3. Reductionism vs. Synthesis: The underlying message within the Yin and Yang sits very well with Systems Thinking and the truth that reducing a system into its parts will give a limited and limiting view.

4. Environments: We live within multiple, often overlapping, social environments. Our home life, our work life, our communities and our wider society.

5. Deming’s ’14 Points for Management’ are all about creating the right environment for an organisation to thrive.

Obedience to authority

LearnerWhat if we set up an experiment to test how human subjects (and therefore we) respond to ‘authority’ ordering them to break their moral code?

What if this experiment went so far as to order the (effective) killing of another human?!

…and, of immense importance, what do we learn from this?

Some of you may be guessing where this is going: This post is about Professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous1 experiments at Yale University (1960 – 63) in which he wanted to test our obedience in the face of orders from an accepted authority that defy our conscience.

My intent in this post is to clearly set out a hugely significant point such that this can be subsequently built upon (by you in pondering what it means in application to your world, and by me in likely future posts).

The grounds for Milgram’s research were the Nuremburg trials, and the consistent defence from those ‘in the dock’ that they were “following orders” which, to most of us, invokes judgement of amoral and/or cowardly people offering excuses, and fills us with disgust.

But this begs the hugely uncomfortable question: ‘So, given the same orders, would you be any different?’ The answer might ‘shock’ you.

I came across Milgram’s psychology experiments many years ago and was fascinated by them…but it was only recently that I read his book (first published in 1974) that vividly chronicles exactly how the experiment (and its various permutations) was created, carried out, de-briefed and concluded upon…and it is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.

(Note: The experiment has been reproduced many times – across cultures, genders and in modern times – with comparable results)

The Experiment explained

Now, for those of you who don’t know (much) about the experiment, here are the basics

  • An advertisement was placed in the local newspaper asking for people from all walks of life to take part in a study of memory and learning by the psychology department at Yale University. Volunteers would be paid $4 for one hour of participation. It made clear that no special experience was needed, and there would be no further obligations once the study had been performed.

  • Many people came forward. The researchers considered ages, educational levels and occupations to balance participation across all the permutations of the experiment that they would carry out. Over 600 volunteers were used. Each was sent an exclusive allotted time to attend.

  • The experiments were conducted in a laboratory of Yale University so as to make it appear legitimate. As in many psychology experiments on humans, it required confederates* to act certain roles and thus make the volunteer (the person who is unwittingly the subject of the experiment) to believe that they are part of what appears to be something else all together.

* Confederate: An actor who participates in a psychological experiment pretending to be a subject but in actuality working for the researcher.

Here’s how the experiment works:

  • Two people turn up for the experiment at the laboratory as per their invite and are greeted by an experimenter. He is dressed in a grey technician’s coat and will ‘run’ the memory and learning experiment, explaining what is taking place, setting it up and controlling it.

  • The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with better understanding the effect of punishment on learning and, in particular, whether people learn things correctly by being punished for making a mistake (such as smacking a child).

  • TeacherUp-front explanation: The experimenter (E) explains that there are two roles: learner (L) and teacher (T).
    • The teacher will read a set of four word pairs to the learner, and then ask the learner to remember a correct pairing;
    • The learner is to indicate the correct answer by pressing one of four switches;
    • Whenever the learning makes an error, the teacher will administer an electric shock, starting at 15 volts.

  • Role selection: The experimenter asks the two people for any preferences as to which role they take and then suggests they draw for it. In fact, one of the men is an actor (i.e. working with the experimenter) and the draw is rigged so that he is always the learner. Thus, we have set up our one true volunteer (the subject of the study) into the role of teacher.

  • Taking up positions: the learner (our actor – and soon to be ‘victim’) is taken into a side room, strapped into a chair and an electrode is attached to his wrist. The strapping is explained as to prevent excessive movement whilst being shocked”. The experimenter makes sure that the teacher is present and assists (i.e. knows exactly what is happening).

The experimenter and teacher return to sit in designated seats in the main laboratory next door, ready to begin.

  • shock generatorShock generator: On the teacher’s desk is a large piece of apparatus. It has a line of thirty switches, labelled as ranging from 15 to 450 volts, in 15 volt increments. There is also a written scale underneath the switches starting at the left with ‘slight shock’, through ‘moderate’, ‘strong’, ‘very strong’, ‘intense’, ‘extreme intensity’, ‘danger – severe’, and finishing at the 450 volts end simply with ‘XXX’. The experimenter provides the teacher with a sample shock using the 3rd switch (45 volts), making the volunteer strongly believe in the authenticity of the generator through an “owch”!

  • Instructions: The teacher is provided with the memory exercise questions to read out and told to administer a shock to the learner each time he gives a wrong response. The key bit – the teacher is instructed to move one switch higher on the shock generator each time the learner gives a wrong answer and to announce the voltage level to the learner just before applying it.

  • Victim feedback: So, firstly, you’ve probably guessed it by now – our victim isn’t actually going to receive the electric shocks but the teacher (our subject) most definitely believes that he is! Instead, a tape recording has been made of our victim acting out highly believable responses to being shocked, and this is played to the teacher at the appropriate moments.
    • The victim’s responses start with little grunts, rising to shouts of pain.
    • At the 150 volt level, the victim cries out that he doesn’t want to be a part of the experiment anymore.
    • His responses escalate, repetitively asking to be let out such that, by 270 volts, it is an agonising scream.
    • At 300 volts, he refuses to provide any more answers (see below for how this is dealt with).
    • His screams and protests reach a peak and then, from 330 volts, no further noise is heard – utter silence.

  • Experimenter feedback: As you would expect, our subject (the teacher), on hearing the victim’s worsening feedback, is going to increasingly turn to the experimenter for guidance…and, as for our victim, the experimenter’s responses to the teacher are scripted.

They start simply with “please go on” through an increasing sequence of “the experiment requires that you continue”, then “it is absolutely essential that you continue” and then “you have no other choice, you must go on”.

  • Three other specific pieces of feedback are scripted:
    • whenever the teacher asks or protests about the victim being hurt then the experimenter is to respond “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage so please go on”;
    • whenever the teacher asks about what to do when the learner doesn’t want to go on, then the experimenter’s response is “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly”;
    • and, finally, if the teacher asks about what to do when the learner doesn’t reply, then the experimenter’s response is to advise the teacher to allow the learner 5 to 10 seconds and take no response as a wrong answer (i.e. carry on up the shock scale) and continue on to the next question.

Of note: The experimenter uses no force, or threat of force, or threat of any form of retribution for disobedience. He merely uses his position of authority.

What was expected?

So, the true question that the researchers wanted to study: At what point (i.e. level of volts) will the teacher disobey the experimenter and refuse to continue delivering electric shocks?

Milgram did a rather cool thing – he staged a lecture on the topic of ‘obedience to authority’ and invited three different groups of people to attend: middle-class2 adults, college students and psychiatrists. He explained the experiment in detail to his audience without disclosing the results in any way.

shock control panelHe provided each person in his audience with a diagram of the shock generator and asked them to reflect on the experiment as just explained to them, and privately record how they believed they would personally perform if they had been the ‘teacher’ subject i.e. mark at what point on the scale they would disobey the experimenter. He then gathered in their responses.

I guess it’s no surprise that not one single audience member (whether middle-class adult, college student or psychiatrist) said that they would administer the 450 volt shock i.e. they all predicted defiance on their part.

Some indicated that they wouldn’t deliver any shocks at all, and a very few indicated that they would disobey at the 300 volt level, with the rest of the audience falling somewhere in between. The mean predicted ‘point of disobeying’ for the middle-class adults, college students and psychiatrists in the audience was 120 volts, 135 volts and 135 volts respectively i.e. no real difference in their thinking.

Further, Milgram realised that people like to see themselves in a favourable light and therefore the above predictions from the audience could have a vanity bias. He therefore asked the psychiatrists a different question: how do you predict other people would perform? They predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts and that about one in a thousand (i.e. someone with a psychological disorder) would administer the full 450 volt shock level.

Milgram explains that if the actual results were statistically different to these predictions then there is something very important going on that we should want to study and understand.

So, what actually happened?

Well, the results of the experiment were nothing like people’s predictions, and surprised the researchers!

For the basic version of the experiment (as explained above), 65% of subjects (the teachers) delivered the maximum (i.e. lethal) 450 volt shock to the victim and, of the minority that disobeyed, it took until the 300 volt level before the first one did so. Now that’s troubling! It’s important to note that there was a great deal of stress feedback exhibited by the teachers (i.e. it wasn’t a scene of happy compliance)…but, significantly, this didn’t prevent them from continuing.

If you’d like to get a really good feel for what all of that actually looks like, and understand some of the emotions involved, then here’s a very good ten minute YouTube showing the British “mentalist and illusionist’ Derren Brown accurately re-performing the experiment with unsuspecting people for one of his TV programs4. If you’ve read this far (!) then it really is worth watching.

What’s going on?

Milgram went on to create 17 variations to the experiment, to find out more and his analysis is highly significant. I hope to write some further posts that explore the reasoning, and its application to our world at work.

A basic conclusion for now:

“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” (Stanley Milgram)


  1. The experiment was infamous because it was criticised at the time as being unethical. You should know that every volunteer was thoroughly debriefed afterwards and was followed up later by way of interviews and the sharing of the outcomes.
  1. It seems a bit weird writing ‘middle-class’ but this was Milgram’s categorisation back in the 60’s. Perhaps wording from another age? (or perhaps not?)
  1. Recommendation: So I’ve gone into a fair bit of detail in the above so that you appreciate the experiment…but I’d still thoroughly recommend the book ‘Obedience to Authority’ by Stanley Milgram.
  1. The final comment from the last subject on the YouTube clip (about making ‘more notches on the machine’) is quite amazing!