Are You the Harvey Weinstein in Your Life?
By now, you’ve heard about the precipitous fall of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men: Harvey Weinstein. Since allegations of his exploits surfaced in early October, the industry mogul was dethroned; ousted from the company that bears his own name, and expelled from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars. At the time of writing, more than fifty women have come forward to stand in solidarity, alleging claims of sexual harassment, assault and rape.
In the wake of such a public fall from grace, Mr. Weinstein has turned radioactive, with his closest collaborators and friends racing to distance themselves from the disgraced producer. Matt Damon, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino and Hilary Clinton have all made public statements condemning the decades of alleged transgressions.
While it is tempting to revel in the salacious details that have been widely reported, or isolate this toxicity to the entertainment industry, we must remember this is only the current headline-grabbing instance of employee abuse in the workplace. In August 2015, news hit of the toxic workplace culture at Amazon. Just this February, widespread sexism and sexual harassment was revealed at Uber, prompting an organization-wide assessment and arguably contributing to founder, Travis Kalanick being forced out. The following month, Miki Agarwal, then-CEO of Thinx was embroiled in a workplace harassment scandal that forced her to step down.
These cases all have one thing in common: the professional abuse of power. Power dynamics exist in every organization, in every industry, in every sector. The only requirement for a power dynamic is more than one person.
Odds are, you’re experiencing a power dynamic right now.
Power and its Sources
Understanding the role of power is crucial for any organization, not only if it wants to avoid scandal, but if it wants to perform sustainably. In our work, we routinely assess power dynamics as part of our analyses because they are ubiquitous and their effect is significant. And, if power is being considered, one must consider its counter-party: authority.
When power is in play, a transaction is taking place; with power on one side and authority in the other.
The role of authority has been widely debated by philosophers, legal scholars and political scientists. At Dowling Street, we find interpreting authority from a sociological and anthropological lens most helpful. Namely, we treat authority as a contract for services. One side provides one or more services, and the other side grants power through some form of authorization. In the case of Mr. Weinstein, prominent roles and a secure professional future were offered in exchange for accepting unwelcome and humiliating advances.
Why struggle when you can have an industry titan guiding your career? (But, it’ll cost you…)
The services that are provided can largely be classified as the following:
Direction – orientation, guidance, and vision
Protection – safety from danger in any form (physical, emotional, financial, etc.)
Order – structure, judgement and arbitration of acceptable behavioral norms
We are constantly being bombarded by information, our senses often just trying to keep up. There is so much coming at us, that we’ve developed sophisticated systems to ignore most of it, or at least throttle to keep from being overwhelming. Take the narrow example of starting in a new role or industry. This is often described as “drinking from a firehose.”
Direction allows us to defer the taxing work of deciding what is important, to what should be paid attention. Professionally, direction comes in many forms. It is the charismatic CEO who presents his/her vision of the future. Or, it is the co-worker who lends technical expertise and/or past experience for a helpful frame of reference. The service of direction is orienting because it instructs us on what to focus, thereby avoiding information overflow.
In the case of Uber, Mr. Kalanick provided much of the vision (or at least was the face of it) for the meteoric growth of the company. The orientation, guidance and promised results were so compelling that employees, board members, and investors turned a blind eye to the ethically-bankrupt tactics that have, until recently, run rampant.
The largest driver of human behavior is the seeking and maintaining of safety. When we were living in caves and running around in loin clothes, this was safety in the most literal meaning of the word: life-safety. Make a wrong move and a mastodon might crush you, you might freeze, or you might fall to your death.
Luckily, most of us in the industrialized world aren’t burdened with a day-to-day life-safety fear. As we’ve evolved as a species, we’ve secured our most basic needs and advanced to more sophisticated ones. Today, most of us are self-protective over our financial security, our emotional security, or our professional security.
The service of protection is the category where most of the allegations against Mr. Weinstein fall into. The quid-pro-quo of personal favors in exchange for the securing of movie roles, or the fast-tracking of one’s career, is a form of protection. It appeals to one’s desire of professional safety and security, which in many cases also appeals to economic or financial safety. The counter-factual is most damning: don’t enter into this sordid agreement and your professional aspirations will suffer. This form of protection can best be described as emotional extortion, similar to the type of “protection” mob bosses offer businesses under their watch.
As discussed above, we look for direction to guide us and avoid information overflow. However, there is a secondary pressure; not just to process, but to respond. Whereas the service of direction helps us make sense of information by focusing our attention, order provides that same assistance in guiding us in acceptable ways to act.
Organizations have a myriad of order-providing vehicles, all designed to enforce a certain standard of behavior and conduct. Any time an organization chart exists, this is an example of the service of order. The chart communicates hierarchy in a very tangible way, thereby giving us shortcuts to understand whose opinion we should prioritize, and who we should seek if there is confusion or a conflict.
We’ve found that our military and healthcare clients lean most heavily on the service of order in their authority structures, for good reason. These are some of the remaining industries where incorrect decisions can have grave consequences. Thus, chains of command are made exceedingly clear and processes are systematized and codified with precision.
Responsibilities of Authority
Authority plays a very important role in organizations and societies. It protects against anarchy, alleviates confusion and fulfills deep-seeded neurological and biological needs. Like most tools, these services can be used for noble or nefarious purposes. Thus, a responsibility lies with those on both sides of the power/authority equation.
For those in positions of authority, granting these services will rapidly shape effectiveness and create efficiency. They will be most influential in defining an organizational culture and create the most powerful signals to staff on “how things are done here.” That said, it is just as easy to institutionalize morally-questionable or ruinous norms, as we see from the examples above.
It is also important to remember that because a transaction is taking place, the underpinnings can be quite weak. Any expectations that aren’t met, on either side, will mean that power will not be conferred or services will be withdrawn. Additionally, if not employed judiciously there can be ever-increasing expectations, leading to an insatiable appetite.
When in a new role, it is tempting to ride in as a white knight, announcing your arrival with the promise of having all the answers, or fixing all the problems. And, the subsequent attention and followership is nothing short of seductive. After all, who wouldn’t like a superhero to solve all their problems? But when you’re unable to fulfill all of those promises, the descent will feel equally as astounding. More than one CEO or country leader has lost his/her job when he/she wasn’t able to meet such expectations.
For those who are not in positions of authority, there are two key things to remember. First, it may feel like balance is tipped towards those at the top, but their authorization is only granted from below.
Power can’t be taken, it can only be given.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, it becomes clearer when thinking of any four-year-old who won’t listen to his/her parents’ pleadings. The parents soon realize how powerless they really are.
Second, a responsibility lies with being intentional and deliberate as to what behavior/services are authorized. That is, for what you are willing to give power. Power grows over time through successive authorization. Thus, it’s easier to fend off abusive tactics earlier than later. Those in positions of authority are merely reflections of the behavior we allow them to employ.
Authority and power are two of the most important aspects of any organization, yet they are seldom discussed or assessed. Seemingly, there is an aversion to explore these facets, risking that one appears manipulative, Machiavellian or political. In our experience, it is much more prudent to take action to observe and understand power dynamics that are ever-present, rather than avoid them and ignore the value they represent.
As you think about your yourself and organization, can you identify the services that are on offer, those norms that are being authorized, and whether they are furthering your cause or leading to abusive practices?