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The Psychology Of Authority & How We Can Use It To Set Boundaries

How a 1960’s psychology study by Milgram can help us to maintain our boundaries in the workplace today.

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When setting boundaries at work, it’s important to do it from the outset. From your very first day, start work the exact time you’re meant to start, no earlier. Take your full lunch break and only accept a workload you can manage.

On the other hand, your boss is your boss, so to a certain extent you do have to do what they say. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out exactly what is acceptable to have as a boundary and what you have to just suck up. Here’s five of the most important boundaries to have:

  • Maintain a manageable workload
  • Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid
  • Take your full lunch break
  • Limit the amount of responsibilities that aren’t in your job description. It’s okay to take on a few extra to help people out, but don’t let it affect your other work. 

What if you’ve not set boundaries in the first place? What if you’ve tried, but your boss seems to have ignored your efforts?

Table of Contents

The Experiment

There are some interesting lessons we can learn from a social psychology experiment done in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram. The basic premise of this study is outlined below.

Milgram told 40 subjects that they were participating in a study about the effects of punishment on learning.

He told them that they were playing the role of teachers and would each test one student.

He instructed them firmly that each time the student got a question wrong, they should give them an electric shock by flicking a switch. Each time, the electric shock got more intense.

However, the electric shocks were only fake, and the student was Milgram’s assistant, getting the questions wrong on purpose (some records state that the shocks were real, which obviously raises concerns about how moral this experiment was. Still, we can learn a lot from it).

Each time he got a shock, the student would act increasingly more distressed and in pain.

The experiment was really testing if the teachers would keep administering the electric shocks, even if they could see how much pain and distress the student was in?

The answer is yes, two thirds of subjects acting as teachers continued to administer the shocks even though the subject was in considerable pain.

Below are some of the factors that Milgram found to make the subjects more likely to follow instructions and shock the student. These can teach us how to manage our environment to lessen the effects of authority and allow us to use our own judgement.

1. The Authority Figure Is Present

like a boss authority figure
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

We’ve all been there. You’re sat in a meeting, face to face with your boss and they ask you to do something that breaks your boundaries. It’s a lot easier to say ‘I don’t know if I’ll have time’ or ‘that means I won’t have a lunch break’ over email.

If you’re aware that you have a boss that doesn’t respect your boundaries, make sure you remind yourself when you meet with them face to face that you have to be vigilant.

Remember, what you permit, you promote. Your boss probably doesn’t even realise that they’re breaking your boundaries if you don’t let them know what they are!

Do not be afraid to say no! Keep reading to find out how to use questions instead of confrontation to stand up for your boundaries.

2. The 'Victim' Is In Another Room

This one will apply to situations that involve any colleagues you have in your team. If you’re in a meeting with your boss and they suggest something that might be unfair to others, you’ll be less likely to point that out if your team aren’t with you.

Make sure that you’re respectful of other people’s time and workload.

For example, your boss might ask if you and your team could take on an extra project. Instead of just saying yes because you feel pressured by an authority figure, say something non-confrontational like “Sounds good! I’ll check with Jane if she has time to work on it with me!”.

3. Others Are Obeying Commands

pack of wolves
Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

Picture this: you’re in a meeting with your team and your boss. Everyone is being told to do tasks that require them to stay late without being paid, but they’re all agreeing. Are you likely to stand up and say no? Probably not.

A great way to tackle a peer pressure situation like this is to make a suggestion instead of flat out refusal.

For example, you could say something like ‘I could probably find time this afternoon to do it, I’ll probably finish it then’. This is then still offering to get the task done within your boundaries.

If this doesn’t work, the next step is to point out what your authority figure is doing. Say something like ‘So, we all have to do this in overtime hours? Will we get paid for those hours?’.

This is may make your boss backtrack. Often, they might not even realise they’re breaking your boundary because they’ll be so focused on getting the task done. By pointing it out like this, you’ll avoid being confrontational whilst hopefully pointing out their mistake.

By using questions in group situations, you’ll be able to subtly argue a point without being confrontational.


Setting boundaries at work with your boss is difficult because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.

We can learn a lot from Milgram’s study on authority. If you learn these three factors that made the test subjects more likely to follow authority, you can use it to recognise situations where you will be more likely to be pressured into agreeing to something that might be unfair.

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