We need to talk about abuse of power

OPINION: The sexual harassment scandal points to some uncomfortable truths about human nature, says consultant Chris Nichols.

by Chris Nichols
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2017

Abuse of power is in the spotlight, mostly focused on sexual misconduct. However, the issue runs much deeper. Power is woven into human life and is often misused in many forms of bullying and harassment. Continuing the cycle of disgust and blame won’t change this. Some of this abuse is even socially sanctioned and rewarded, seen as a sign of ‘strong leadership’.

Instead, we need a more rigorous and honest framework for discussing power in organisations and to build the capacity to confront power abuse rigorously and fairly.

We love to make heroes (and villains)

Humans love heroes. We lift people onto pedestals and award heroes richly, but we also love blaming, especially a fallen idol. Nothing makes us more secure than knowing we are NOT like them. It’s a childhood game, and we play it out in every organisation.

What gets missed in all this is any honest discussion about how we sanction power and reward it, and how this plays into abuse. Often, we turn a blind eye to the abuse of the power. More disturbingly, we often reward the abuser: their ways seen as part of their flair and genius.

I am not alone in recalling many examples of power abuse from my working life.

When I was a New York investment banker, junior associates sometimes slept under desks in the office.  No one told them to – they wanted to work on the biggest deals with the most successful bankers. The power over the juniors was absolute.

I worked in a corporate takeover, where the acquired managers had to change their identity or be hounded out. The right of acquirers to trash human identity and purpose goes unquestioned. 

I have seen abusive behaviour actively rewarded and applauded. Some organisations talk about ‘Trophy Bastards’ – award-winning talent that can flout the rules so long as the awards are won.

Power tantrums and boardroom bullying lie on the same spectrum as alleged attacks on the casting couch. None of this requires a conspiracy or any conscious action, it just requires power and its workings in practice to go unexamined. 

Examining power rigorously

We have to recognise the systemic nature of power and abuse. As a charity non-exec and trustee, I argue for a clear code of practice and a process for addressing difficulties over power as openly as possible.

ACAS research shows that systematic approaches work best in addressing all forms of bullying and harassment. The mnemonic CLEAR is helpful as a guide to what systemic issues a director or senior manager should focus on.

C: A clear behaviour code helps. It also needs to be embedded within an organisation to put it into practice.

L: Listening. Everybody involved in such an experience must be heard fairly and have confidence in the process.

E: stands for ethics as a practice – something you do, not just say

A: alertness to the subtle ways power abuse arises and is rewarded – blame isn’t enough.

R: stands for remedy and review – with an outcome and a review of learning from each incidence.

We need to acknowledge that desires are part of life and that confusion regarding power and behaviour may arise in ways that do harm to those involved, as well as others in an organisation and wider community. It is vital that we develop the skills and capability to be open and alert.

In my view all directors and senior managers should be in supervision, a peer-learning group, or both. Supervision is a deep learning process akin to having a rigorously honest mirror held up to your actions.  It is a source of self-awareness and insight and a powerful catalyst for better standards and new thinking.

Coupled with this, having a group of peers willing to tell you the truth is vital. This is a group of colleagues willing to act as your fiercest critics, to keep everyone honest.

Good action requires each one of us as leaders to take responsibility, to acknowledge that we are flawed and vulnerable around power. We all need the guidance of an ethics code and the counsel of others to help us be our best.

We can create communities of awareness and rigorous processes to guard against abuse. It cannot be delegated to the law as an abstraction, in fact we cannot delegate it anywhere. It is up to all of us to play our part in making the organisations and the ethics we want to live by.

Chris Nichols is a co-founder of leadership and strategy consultancy GameShift.


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