Business Advice

Abuse of power at work, and how to stop it

Eve Ash /

What makes some men, and even some women, start to abuse others when in power? Not all powerful people turn nasty or look for sexual opportunities at work, but we are seeing a wave of “victims coming out” and the repercussions for senior executives and boards having to respond with actions not turning a blind eye.

Power and loss of empathy

Power can lead to people becoming more impulsive, less aware of risks and less empathic. These are also symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, according to Professor Dacher Keltnerat, UC Berkeley.

Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, McMaster University, Ontario, compared powerful and less powerful subjects under a magnetic stimulation machine and found that the ability to mirror, essential for empathy, was impaired. 

The issue is not so much whether people who have had accusations levelled at them similar to that of Harvey Weinstein imagine themselves to be more attractive than they actually are. No, they simply feel they have the power and are gonna wield it.  It’s “powerstruck syndrome”, believing that others will do your bidding because you can “finish” them career-wise. 

You’ve heard the saying, “power corrupts”: it does, because the powerful person refuses to recognise or openly relishes the fact that they are impacting other people’s lives, with little to no regard for the repercussions. 

#Metoo Era

The powerful people having accusations against them coming to light since the October New York Times expose resemble dictators’ statues: designed to awe and intimidate, they are now toppling with a crash.  It’s not just actors on the #MeToo bandwagon; behavioural scientists are stepping up with ways to spot a Harvey.  The conceit of these titans, propped up by their sense of entitlement, is all too obvious, as is a subtle self-hatred. 

The hashtag #Metoo is here to stay with women and men continuing to disclose more stories of sexual harassment.  Perhaps #Metoo is the new word to galvanise people to pay attention to the issue.

The culture says it all

If a workplace culture tacitly endorses powerstruck syndrome, this spells bad news. 

Worrying about the consequences of trying to halt these rampaging beasts (who are usually higher in the pecking order) can trigger anxiety, even depression in a victim. It isn’t helped when others out of politeness or fear don’t say anything.  That’s collusion. However, the fact that there’s any kind of collusion points squarely to a bad workplace culture where people don’t feel safe to speak up. It signifies an “ugly and powerful machine” that prevents people from coming forward.

Except that these days, it no longer has to. Increasingly, people are legally empowered to speak up if someone is making them uncomfortable, sexually harassing them or threatening their career. 

Attention everyone

If you’re experiencing a “Harvey”-like situation, tell the person politely but firmly how their behaviour makes you feel, that it’s affecting your work performance, and to just stop (try to do this where colleagues are nearby). Warn them that you might take it further, should s/he persist.

If you see a someone bullying or trying it on another, don’t ignore it. Start with a firm comment regarding what you have observed and that it is inappropriate and needs to stop, an unmistakable warning. If it is more serious, report it to management.

Beware all managers

Tell everyone (and back it up with visible, easily-accessed company policy) that power-struck syndrome is not tolerated, that you’ll be logging any further instances of abuse and that there are consequences, should the behaviour continue.

Warning for senior management / board members

Remember that the climate for this behaviour starts and stops with you. The stun gun of reputation damage proved sufficient justification for the Weinstein Company’s board to give Harvey Weinstein his marching orders after accusations were made. Now questions are being asked of those in that company who had received reports over the years and allowed it to go on.

Some companies and their shareholders choose to ignore the rumbles, confident there is no ice age or meteorite hurtling towards them.

It’s in everyone’s interest to understand that power is an innately combustible substance that warrants careful handling. Having power achieves remarkable outcomes, but as countless stories and historical examples reveal, it leaves victims in its wake. 

You want engaged, collegiate and contented people who feel it’s safe to work in your company, where the boundaries for professional and personal behaviour are clear. 

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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