In the past weeks there has been a tidal wave of disclosure about people abusing their power. The # metoo movement has helped people, men and women alike, to come forward and share their experiences with the world. It’s a widespread problem in the political, cultural and business world. In short, everywhere there is power the risk of abuse exists.
Langer Research conducted a survey in the USA to assess the dimension of the problem. They concluded that 33 million American women feel harassed and 14 million have experiences of abuse. These figures are shocking. And before we say that this is about America and not about us, I think we should stop this reflexion. 95% of women report that nothing happened to stop that behaviour. And that’s because it’s also about power.
How Does Power Work?
Power is always unevenly distributed. If everybody would have the same power, it would not be an issue. John Rawls discussed in his “Theory of Justice” about the hypothetical situation that all “resources” are equally distributed and that people do not know about possible differences. He also argues that a difference or inequality is only acceptable as when it is beneficiary to those who have less.
We can apply this to the topic of power.
As power is unevenly distributed, it should only be used when those who have less power can benefit from it.
In the sexual harassment cases, this is clearly not the case. People with power uses it to impose their sexual drive upon others who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. It’s difficult because this use of power functions through fear.
People who find themselves in such a situation feel that they cannot do anything against it, out of fear of losing something. The person in power controls access to many other things: access to resources, access to career opportunities, access to an income, access to violence … So people tend to choose between the benefit of going against the unacceptable behaviour and the cost of doing so.
The benefits of resisting or exposing such behaviour are clear: dignity, self-esteem, protection of others, justice, … These are all long-term and high-level principles. The costs are usually direct and of a short-term nature: no job, damaged reputation, no income, becoming an outcast, violence. And that’s why many people do not come out. The cost is too high. They do not want to be a hero (as they know where most heroes end).
A very peculiar aspect of such a situation is that people tend to believe the ones in power more easily. People who claim justice are often blamed and shamed. Did they say no? Were they clear enough? Did they provoke the behaviour? What were they wearing? What were they doing there in the first place? Are they not exaggerating? Was it that bad? This adds to the feeling of loss.
In the end people who would like to expose an abuse of power, know where they are today: in a bad situation. But they do not know what their fate will be once they come out. So they decide to move on and do nothing. So this psychological mechanism helps people to stay in power and continue their behaviour. And people in power who abuse their power know that it works this way.
Power is needed (?)
Power is in itself not a bad thing. Leaders need it to survive, to progress, to open doors. It’s not the power itself that is a problem, it’s how people use it.
In Schindler’s list there is a scene which stuck with me. When the cruel camp director Amon got drunk, Schindler tried to implant another idea about power in his head. True power is about not using it. Of course you can argue on how Schindler phrases it – power is not killing when you have every justification to kill – but I think it’s true: not using power is powerful.
Power as Source for Leadership
Power is never a sustainable source of leadership. To keep power, you have to do everything to avoid others from developing their own power. If power is based on access to information, the one in power needs to withhold information from others. And, if competence is the source of power, the one with power needs to stop people from developing themselves. If fear is the basis of power, the powerful need to make sure that people are scared. None of these outcomes and levers are future-oriented or sustainable.
When leaders use power with the sole purpose of maintaining it, power becomes a threat to the well-being, the prosperity and the future of people. This kind of power abuse leads to all sorts of obnoxious behaviours. And the thing is that people in power feel they are entitled to these behaviours. They think it’s normal to do indecent proposals, to use the company’s or country’s assets for their own purposes. And they think it’s normal to eliminate competition on the power field.
Let’s not be naïve, people have always used power both for positive and negative purposes. There are a lot of power games going on in organizations. Sometimes the use of power is beneficial, very often it’s not. But we agree that when leaders use their power to (sexually) harass others, it is surely not acceptable.
Harassment destroys one’s identity. People feel dehumanized. Treated unfairly. Damaged.
And here comes leadership. When a leader knows or notices that someone in power abuses their power, they should step in. The first directive is to always protect the ones who have less power. In that way leaders can use their power to the benefit of someone in particular and to the benefit of the experience of many others. Abuse of power should always be stopped. Leaders who tolerate such behaviours lose their own credibility and make it difficult for people to continue working. Tolerating such behaviour destroys trust. It creates an unsafe environment.
But you might think that a leader will always do that. But leaders also work in a context. They are just as sensitive to power arguments as any other person. Maybe the abusing person has more power? Maybe the leader has power struggles and cannot handle yet another problem. Maybe the abusing person is an excellent professional with a track record? Maybe … As you see, these are all excuses. But these are around. And when leaders are in doubt to act, they should think of this: if there is one time a leader should intervene, it’s on that moment when someone is in trouble because of someone abusing power.
House of Cards
Leaders are as good as the worst behaviour they tolerate.
And of course there’s a lot of manipulation. We all know of cases where someone who does not perform well, uses the (legal) protection of the harassment complaint to save themselves. But then we should have faith in the outcome of the inquiry. This is what I propose as procedure when there is one case.
- Protect the weaker person.
- Freeze the situation. Make sure nothing can happen that aggravates the situation.
- Conduct a thorough inquiry, done by a neutral professional. Give everybody the chance to a fair chance to give their sides.
- Share the outcome of the inquiry with both parties
- Come to a conclusion and take action.
Of course, step 5 is the most difficult. As there are always two sides to a story, leaders must come to a conclusion. This is what has recently happened with the actor Kevin Spacey. After people came forward, Netflix has stopped all collaboration with him. Not an easy decision. The same has happened in Belgium with Bart De Pauw. Another example are the recent resignations from the British government. Organizations cannot afford to work with people who exhibit that kind of behaviour. And as it often happens, these public figures have less chances for a fair trial because the stakes are high. Of course these decisions are also and maybe even primarily about reputation.
But think of this. How many people in the world suffer every day because people abuse their power? And how many people have to suffer because their leaders do not wish to intervene in such cases and become accomplice to the situation. People deserve a leadership that is courageous enough to serve and protect. And that’s what power should be used for in the first place. Only then people will have a full trust in their leadership.
There will be always behaviour like this. It’s part of humanity. But fighting against it is a sign of civilisation and culture. So it’s not because we have predatory behaviour in our genes, that we need not deal with it.
Alternative for Leadership
The # metoo wave shows also that social technologies have the potential to become a source of power as counterweight for traditional sources of power. Like this they are an alternative to leadership. Collective action shows that personal power can be outweighed. But we know that these sources of power are very fragile, they don’t last too long. However, the # metoo hashtag has given many people the courage to step forward and do something about this situation. And somehow this is remarkable.
People who still use their power in inappropriate ways and leaders who tolerate or endorse this behaviour, should take this as a sign. It’s time to clean up and truly adhere to the often espoused values of trust, respect and fairness. If not, leadership and culture are like of a house of cards. They will blown away by one single example of bad behaviour followed by popular outcry. The discrepancy between words and actions is no longer acceptable.
Make sure there is no real reason for someone to use the # metoo hashtag.
And here’s the thing. If you only intervene after a # metoo action has occurred, you are too late. So, Reputation is the shadow of character. Work on the latter and you will not need to work on the former. And this is a plea for better leadership, as alternative to weak leadership.