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How to Talk About Power in the Workplace

February 14, 2018

 

We’re far enough into 2018 to ask the question – is anyone else breathing a sigh of relief that 2017 is behind us?  

 

Whether it involved company cultures or specific individuals in positions of power, last year saw issue after issue of bad behavior from authority figures. However, these events also created something positive—a new conversation. Responses such as the #MeToo movement brought the issue of workplace harassment to the forefront. That new conversation is changing how business leaders address the issue of power in their workplaces.

 

Here are a few ways leaders are addressing power:

 

Training for compliance isn't enough 

No longer can organizations use traditional sexual harassment training as a way to check off a box. Given the past year, this is a bigger issue demanding greater discussion than a one-hour training. By the way, that old school training method never worked in the first place. 

 

This New York Times article states that the traditional harassment training can backfire by reinforcing gender stereotypes, at least in the short term. It portrays men as powerful and women as vulnerable. Other study found training material describing people in a legal context (as harassers or victims), the listeners rejected it as a waste of time, because they didn’t think the labels applied to them. Neither approach helps employees feel confident and empowered in addressing issues in the workplace. 

 

Empowering employees through disruption

If research says people don't relate to being a harasser or a victim, how do we address the issue in the workplace? Instead of focusing on traditional roles or stereotypes, the greatest empowerment opportunity can come by teaching employees how to respond as if they were a bystander. 

 

I've seen this in sessions I've facilitated. For the most part, people know what is “off limits” in their organizations. But employees are uncomfortable responding in the moment. Organizations teaching employees how to respond or disrupt a situation in the moment, versus the idea of confronting the harasser, helps create a better conversation in the workplace. 

 

Acknowledging there is a new position of power

Because of last year’s events,  those without power (victims and potential victims) are now leaders of a movement - and in a position of authority. People coming forward with their stories through blog posts or the #MeToo movement have created more awareness than anything I've ever seen. And the creeps are on the run. Organizations can continue this movement by encouraging reporting, sharing past stories, and having more frequent conversations in the workplace. 

 

Not tolerating bad behavior

Uber and Thinx ignored, and even encouraged, bad behavior as part of their company culture and to protect outstanding performers. Companies must focus on training and posting of value, but that is only a start. Unsurprisingly, according to the research, harassment is more likely to occur when bad behavior is tolerated by leadership. To actually prevent issues of power and harassment, companies need to create a culture of compassion and respect—and that all employees are treated as equals. 

 

I can't tolerate another year of workplace issues like what we saw in 2017. And organizations can't tolerate the issue any longer either. It’s time to talk about power in the workplace and make a positive change.

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