The fact that leaders and managers who have significant influence over others engage in abusive conduct no longer surprises us. As conversations hit a fever pitch, some of the world's largest employers are still struggling to find an ethical voice as an agent of change.
The accusations that surfaced in recent months against Sir Phillip Green, the chairman of Arcadia Group, detail a barrage of verbal abuse towards a female employee and provide a new window into the dynamics of abusive behavior by individuals with power in the workplace. While the story of a boss throwing objects at employees, verbally attacking them, or sexually harassing them has become way too familiar over the past year, we are still grappling with the idea that power may represent a key source of ethical risk in organizations.
The fact that leaders and managers who have significant influence over others may engage in abusive conduct undisturbed should not surprise us. With each new story and headline, it's become increasingly clear that power is often accompanied by a mistaken sense of self-entitlement. What we're collectively coming to realize is that these ingredients, power and self-entitlement, when combined together, can be a recipe for heightened ethical risk in business and toxic for a corporate culture.
Sir Philipp Green's admission fits the mold: “there has obviously from time to time been some banter, but as far as I'm concerned that's never been offensive.” Many powerholders don't view their conduct as being malicious; but that has nothing to do with how others experience their behavior. In fact, that very lack of self-awareness-a common blind spot among the powerful-represents part of the challenge. Instead of fostering a deeper sense of responsibility toward those it can affect, power has a disinhibiting influence on the powerholders, leading them to believe that the rules of social engagement and other shared norms of ethical conduct do not apply to them in the same way they apply to others.
The research in this area is unambiguous: not only are those who have power in an organization likely to cheat more, but they also tend to criticize other people's moral conduct significantly more than those without power. Having power may convince us that we deserve more than other people because that very power we hold is proof we are better than others. The moral hypocrisy power generates is especially likely among powerholders who believe they've earned their power or inherited it in a legitimate way. Thus, a business tycoon who's been successful according to a number of common metrics (e.g., notoriety, wealth, access, etc.) may be completely unaware of the unwarranted moral license they give themselves.
The challenge of abusive conduct in the workplace cannot be addressed by simply relying on the good will of those in power.
Instead, other culture mechanisms must be harnessed to create a system of effective accountability around those who have power in the organization. In the Strategic Culture Framework (SCF) report, I discuss what these additional mechanisms are. The SCF identifies the aspects of an organization's culture that create ethical risk, including when managers and leaders use power without awareness and solid ethical grounding. As highlighted by the SCF, the culture dynamics that can correct the risk associated with leaders and managers abusing their power do not simply entail developing better leadership skills, but also creating deeper ethical capacity.
If we create processes, mechanisms, and resources that help employees own the issue of power abuse as a critical ethical challenge (ethical ownership), effectively reason through its many implications (ethical reasoning), and address it competently and fairly (ethical voice), then the organization regains control of that potential risk.
Using Ethical Voice as an Agent of Change
Of the three mechanisms the Strategic Culture Framework lays out as the best way to build ethical capacity in an organization, ethical voice is critically important when it comes to curbing and changing unethical behavior that's been made acceptable by long-standing cultural norms. The #metoo movement and the way sexual harassment and bullying are viewed today in organizations exemplify that. The effect of thousands of voices condemning the abusive conduct of those in power must be understood with respect to the shift in implicit value attached to that conduct. Protecting the special privilege of the powerful leaders was a priority in the past. Today, however, that's changed: curbing the unfair and costly consequences of abusive behavior has become significantly more important.
The November 2018 Google walkout, in which 20,000 employees around the world protested how their employer had handled sexual misconduct in the organization, provides a good example of how ethical voice can pave the way to greater ethical ownership. It also shows how ethical reasoning can create a deeper capacity to deal with these types of challenges across the entire organization. For example, Google employees asking for an end to forced arbitration underscores the importance of eliminating the backdoors that make it easier for a company not to own up the issue of sexual harassment and power abuse.
The request that Google commit to discontinue pay and opportunity inequity reinforces the criticality of giving women as much value as men in a tangible and unambiguous way. This would make it more difficult for male power holders to discount their abusive conduct toward female employees.
The ask that the company produce a publicly-disclosed sexual harassment report frames the need to objectively evaluate current practices. This is a key step toward owning the challenge at hand and also has the added benefit of supporting ethical voice, giving employees who are abused the needed context.
The demand for a uniform process to report sexual misconduct, safely and anonymously across the entire organization, reflects the importance of leveling the playing field when it comes to ethical voice.
Finally, the demand that Google's Chief Diversity Officer report directly to the CEO and the company's board underscores the fact that little can change until all key stakeholders, including the most powerful ones, given their unique role in an organization, are held accountable for their ability to own the challenge of discrimination and power abuse in the workplace.
Educating and Developing Stakeholders to Curb the Dark Sides of Power
The recognition that power is routinely sullied by corrupting tendencies is a critical step to get ahead of the risk created by abusive workplace behavior. The mechanisms highlighted by Google employees in their public stance toward the company are a good illustration of what organizations can do to curb the negative tendencies of power.
These mechanisms should be complemented with initiatives designed to educate and develop employees and managers on the dark sides of power, and the mistaken norms we've developed around them. In particular, understanding the biases power generates both in the powerholders and the powerless, practicing higher awareness around the responsibilities of power, and creating a shared definition of respect that is explicitly inclusive of all employees in the organization. It is time for all organizations to make these changes and provide the resources and education that can make a difference when it comes to curbing the still too common “Sir Philip Greens” of today's corporate culture.
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