EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
When I scan the news on my phone, there are two to three reports almost every day on the latest perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault, the name brand men who are getting their due whether they have been tried by the media or in the courts. It leaves me wondering how many more might be hiding under less famous personas or brands, and if they are worried, as a piece in The Onion so aptly put, “that a woman might come out of the woodwork to hold them accountable for something they absolutely did.”
The rising tide of justice for sexual harassment goes beyond blatant hostility and sexual predation; it’s about the misuse of power. Power may come from high income, position in an organizational hierarchy, social class, physical strength, or simply being part of a dominant group. Each of these distinctive ways to gain and hold power deserve exploration in our ongoing conversations about sexual harassment.
All organizational leaders have power because of their position in their organizational hierarchy, and therefore it’s imperative that we begin to understand power dynamics and our personal use of our power. Speaking scientifically, the interplay of power, rank, and privilege alter the brain’s responses to power, leading us to interpret the world very differently. As Columbia University professor Adam Galinsky states, those with power roam in a very different psychological space than those without power; power lowers inhibitions and produces a higher-than-average self-focus.
Julie Diamond in her book Power: A User’s Guide explains some of the pillars of power dynamics:
- Being in a position of power reduces our ability to understand others’ experience as well as have empathy for others, especially when they are different than us.
- People in power receive much more positive mirroring than others so it’s difficult to discern where we’re “landing” with people. For example, a junior colleague may disagree vehemently with a boss, but all verbal and non-verbal communication makes the boss believe s/he is in agreement. People in power also have a harder time discerning the difference between intent and impact.
- It’s not only lonely at the top, but it’s very quiet; employees are far more likely to tell their bosses what they think they want to hear, rather than what is true for them.
- People in high-ranking roles are less socially inhibited.
Harassment is operationally defined as behavior that makes the victim feel uncomfortable or threatened, regardless of the intent of the offender. And so, it is critical that I and other leaders put steps in place to assure that those in power don’t cause harm. As challenging as it might be, we can and must find a balance that honors others’ wishes and learn to engage in a more mutually pleasant way.
In addition to these truisms about power, we have the complicating factor of institutionalized privilege that must be talked about when we explore how people FEEL about themselves. At Thanksgiving, our 23-year-old son reflected on how in high school it was the good-looking boys with cars who came from privileged backgrounds and with a strong self-concept who got the most popular girls. The girls had an unspoken social contract to be the eye candy and support the boy in his social success. The boys then learn that they can get away with questionable behavior, because they’re being positively mirrored and encouraged by their male peers, and the girls are hesitant to say anything against that behavior lest they risk their own positional power. This sets up a gendered power dynamic for life. We need more focus, attention and commitment to dismantling these dynamics much earlier.
So what can leaders do to change this dynamic? Here are four practical steps you can take to make sure you use your power appropriately.
- Anyone in a position of power or privilege regardless of gender MUST do their personal inquiry. Reading Julie’s book is a great place to start.
- Learn the art of non-defensive perspective taking. This means to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand the impact of what happened, regardless of your intent. Minimize the explaining of intent on your part and just allow their experience, while promising to look seriously at your side of things.
- Fine tune your antennae to sense when something is off in a relationship, and create enough psychological safety to invite the other person to raise it up. Never underestimate the difficulty of this action when power is a factor: look how many years it took for the women and some men to call out their situations.
- Stay current of workplace and sexual harassment laws. Private businesses over 50 people should review this important education annually (laws vary by state). Do it seriously, and not in a check-the-box format. Make sure your training uses tailored scenarios for your business in addition to reviewing key concepts around your organization’s policies and legal requirements on taking action.
However, like most change, there can be resistance. Some leaders may assume that balancing power will create a sterile environment that inhibits connection or appropriate affection. For example, I think of myself as a warm and compassionate person. It’s not unusual for me to greet others with a hug, including the people who work with me at Cook Ross, a professional services firm with over 60 employees and external associates. But the combination of the rising consciousness about the pervasiveness of sexism in our society and my own personal, and slow but steady ascent of consciousness about power has me reconsidering my default behavior.
I believe that it is a leader’s responsibility to respond (not react) to the current zeitgeist and adjust his or her behavior accordingly. Leaders have to be mindful of the impact of their actions even if there is never an intent towards any kind of seduction, harassment, or making anyone else uncomfortable in any way. That’s where we have to deeply examine our relationship to power.
There is room for warm, emotionally-available and supportive bosses in this world; in fact, there is a yearning for them. But that warmth must be balanced with boundaries, accountability, and a higher level of consciousness on how our behavior, regardless of intent, can affect others. Those leaders are the ones that will help shape a new world.