Next time I come for a meeting with you make sure you’re braless”   External Bank Manager

“If you interrupt my meeting, you need to be punished and that means me ‘taking you’ on my desk”  Followed by being picked up and laid across the desk. Sales and Marketing Director

“You know we only hired you for your looks” CEO

I’ll personally upgrade your hotel so that we can share a room on our trip away” Commercial Director

These comments are real and personal to me and occurred whilst being employed at LeisureNet Ltd, the organisation I blew the whistle on. While some readers might categorise and excuse these comments as ‘part of the ‘90s’, they’d be wrong. Just this year whilst lecturing at UK universities, four young women approached me to share their own stories of being sexually harassed by predatory men whilst interring in organisations. They had been left feeling humiliated and powerless, shocked that their fear had greater command over their principles.

In the nine years working at LeisureNet, maintaining my own career aspirations and trajectory meant holding the tension between strategically ‘playing along’ and ‘drawing a line’; showing up in a way that signaled a veneer of jocular surrender to being targeted, alongside avoiding recognised sexually constructed contexts– a very fine tightrope indeed. My ‘drawing the line’ was bolstered by being a single parent. I was perceived as having a legitimate reason for leaving events early, thereby avoiding the very real probability of being physically and sexually targeted and harassed.

Over the years, I observed many of my female colleagues, who weren’t perceived as having a legitimate reason to leave an event, falling from the tightrope, which resulted in humiliation, and signaled the end of their career progression.

In this blog I want to approach this subject and the challenges in speaking up to the abuse of power, through the prism of, what I have named the ‘Three S’s’  – Self, Situation and System. All S’s are interdependent and cross over with each other.

Abuse of Power: We can sense when one person or a group is more powerful than another, yet we cannot measure power. It is as abstract as time, yet as real as a firing squad.

To be human is to be immersed in power dynamics. Once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. They behave in an impulsive fashion and violate the ethics of the workplace.  These characteristics manifest in inappropriate sexual behaviour and are exaggerated in male-dominated contexts.  Powerful men tend to sexualise their work, looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs, and along the way leer inappropriately, stand too close, and touch for too long on a daily basis, thus crossing the lines of decorum—and worse.

Our Obedience to Authority: Lessons can be taken from Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience to authority and Dr Phil Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect – studies on how good people turn evil. These studies, inspired by Milgram’s quest to understand the conditions that gave rise to Nazi Germany, showed that authoritarian contexts can prompt ordinary, well-meaning citizens to give near-lethal shocks to strangers off the street.   In a similar fashion, contexts of unchecked power make many of us vulnerable to, and complicit in, the abuse of power. We may not like what’s going on, but many of us wouldn’t do anything to stop it. This doesn’t excuse the rest of us any more than it excuses the powerful for their crimes, but it should prevent us from telling ourselves the comforting lie that we’d behave better than the people in The Weinstein Company who reportedly knew what Weinstein was doing and failed to put a stop to it.

The Bystander Effect
In many cases (like that of Harvey Weinstein), an individual gets a reputation as a harasser, and yet nobody steps forward to shut down this behavior. Why do colleagues stand by and let this happen?

Some of this can be explained by the classic work by Dr Phil Zimbardo’s on the diffusion of responsibility (also known as the bystander effect). When people witness a crime, medical emergency, or an act of harassment, they know someone should step forward. The more people who are aware of the event, though, the more people assume that someone else will step forward. The paradox is that when you are the only one aware of an event, you are much more likely to do something about it than when it happens as a part of a big organisation.

Even if you do feel moved to do something, there is still a cost-benefit calculation you are likely to make. If the harassers are people in charge, then stepping forward can cost you your job. As noble as people want to be, taking a real risk to correct a wrong is hard. And so many people stay silent and go along to get along.

In addition, people are wired to adopt the actions of the people around them. If no one else has ever spoken up for or supported someone when they have complained about inappropriate behaviour, or if you’ve witnessed a leader responding in a negative way to anyone reporting a case of harassment, then it is hard to take on that goal for yourself.

What can we Change?
Train for Courageous Conversations. By doing so, you will acquire a tool that is the Road-Map to Courageous Conversations and you will have practiced via role played scenarios. This will act as an inoculation to real fear, allowing you to find your voice to speak up.

I believe in the power of words to change culture and behaviours.  The revolution in consciousness doesn’t start in the mind, nor the eye. It begins on the tongue – English citizens started to hear the stories about the treatment of slaves on slave ships in the 1700’s, the moral calculus of the slave trade started shifting, and antislavery laws followed. Telling such stories also functions as a means by which those with less power construct the reputations of those in power and constrain their impulsive tendencies.  Call it out for what it is, talk about the details, every time. Make the reality of what it looks like clear including the excruciating and unforgettable details.

The abuse of power is a widespread societal problem that impacts all industries. But it’s important for each of us to view it on an individual level. One strength of the #metoo campaign is that it puts a human face on an often anonymous issue. But the next step is for each person to take individual responsibility to help fight the problem. Make the commitment to take the difficult step of doing something in the face of any inappropriate behaviour,  even though it would be easier to ignore it and hope it goes away.

Abuses of power are predictable and recurring; recognise the contexts and patterns in order to get just a bit further away physically from people who are toxic.

The paradox of power: The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power leading to hubris, arrogance and blind-spots.

Set clear boundaries and be consistent.

We need to think more carefully about what factors in the workplace create an environment in which people feel safe to harass others. Leaders that allow or participate in frequent wrongdoing create a proxy for additional illegitimate and possibly illegal practices.

Rather than framing interpersonal mistreatment in organisations as a private problem for individuals to resolve, we should hold organisations responsible for managing misbehavior within.

When interpersonal abuse does arise, victimised employees face a Catch-22 dilemma. Speaking Up about the mistreatment could trigger social isolation, professional devaluation, and perhaps even demotion—particularly if the mistreatment came from powerful others.

Vocal resistance in and of itself may depart from workplace norms, but victims may appear especially deviant when speaking out against wrongdoers who considerably “outrank” them in the organisation. More specifically, exposing the misbehaviour of a highly placed member of the organisational hierarchy—thus characterising that person as unlawful, unethical, or inappropriate—questions that hierarchy. The organisation’s dominant coalition, including the wrongdoer, may therefore retaliate against the victim to correct this challenge to authority while peers may fear reprisals for aligning with the less powerful (and thus more deviant) victim.

The alternative is for victims to endure the injustice in silence, costing them their well-being. The responsibility, therefore should be on organisational leaders, not employee victims, to take corrective action. Vocal resistance to mistreatment should be the right of all employees, and organisations should empower them to exercise this right and raise their voices without retribution.

What Can we Change?
Its easy to pick off one woman at a time for sexual harassment but not so easy if women all look out for one another. Machiavelli failed to appreciate an important fact in the evolution of human hierarchies: that with increasing social intelligence, subordinates can form powerful alliances and constrain the actions of those in power. Power increasingly has come to rest on the actions and judgments of other group members. A person’s power is only as strong as the status given to that person by others.

Ensure there is visible organisational justice when individual/s do speak up.

Organisations can be proactive in thanking people for stepping forward to bring occurrences of abuses of power to their attention to let others know that it is important for them to do the same if they witness something inappropriate.

Sexual harassment shouldn’t be associated with HR, who will have little power or authority to confront someone in the C-Suite, as was the case with the allegations against Weinstein. HR training manuals with corporate-friendly phrases are sanitised from real situations where men harass and grope.

Recognise whether someone’s bad behaviour is inherent to who they are or situational.

Change the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to flourish.

Guided by centuries of advice like Machiavelli’s and Greene’s, we tend to believe that attaining power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. Indeed, we might even assume that positions of power demand this kind of conduct—that to run smoothly, society needs leaders who are willing and able to use power this way.

What Can we Change?
We need to challenge the myths that sustain the abuses of power, which persuade us to choose the wrong kinds of leaders and to tolerate gross abuses of power.

This moment has the potential to become a tipping point in the fight against systemic abuses of power, particularly sexual assault.  For it to live up to it’s potential, we have to recognise the banality of the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world and turn our attention to empowering individuals with the capacity to engage in Courageous Conversations (Speaking-Listening Up) and to changing the social context in ways that make the human tendency to abuse power a thing of the past.

Please get in touch, I’d love to be of service.

Wendy Addison
SpeakOut SpeakUp