The news is filled with stories coming out from behind the shadows of sexual abuse and abuse of power against women. It’s about time we talk as leaders about the shift of power in the workplace. Whether training new managers, educating experienced managers, or diversifying your workplace, there will be a time when one employee will have power over another. Don’t wait until there is an issue to set a trend or create a policy. Lead by example.
Authority, power, influence, whatever you want to call it over another person can be abused if left unattended. It may be HR’s job to “police” it and secure a safe environment (if you have an HR department), but it is leadership’s job to create the example, maintain it and promote it.
The stories of leaders and industries turning a “blind eye” to the problem are unfolding but there is more to the story. History and recent news are highlighting stories of abuse against women by men but what about the stories of women abusing men, men abusing men, last but not least, women abusing women. NONE of these scenarios are justified but when one person has “power” over another, sometimes the scene turns ugly.
I was in the middle of writing this blog when watching the “Golden Globes” and was very proud of “Hollywood” and the “Time’s Up Movement.” Eva Longoria eloquently stated, “Time’s up on the imbalance of power, the abuse of power” and clarified, “It’s not a feminine Issue—it’s a power issue!”
How can we prevent it? How as leaders can we create a space where all are safe? What can be done to train employees, coworkers, managers and business owners so all know power does NOT equal strength?
Here are some suggestions:
First, recognize and talk about it!
In many early relationships, the roles of leaders around us indicated power. Parents, teachers, clergymen, policemen and others, they controlled our actions and, as a result, seemed to possess power over us. It wasn’t always the case but it may have seeded some expected subservience in our actions. In any relationship, if there is an imbalance, it can and should be recognized and talked about to shift the control or power of the situation.
Second, confront the problem.
Don’t just sit idle and watch. If you are being abused or know someone being abused in the slightest of ways, try to confront the problem. At the very least, seek help to address or solve the problem. If you can’t resolve it, then find a way to get out of it. Just planning your next steps can help you see the possibilities and gain some of your own power back.
Third, try as hard as you can to set the example.
Relationships have an ebb and flow and sometimes there is a need for someone to take control or power over a situation but tread lightly. Be aware and reflect on your past to find examples when power over you was favorable not abusive. Train your staff so they have examples to reflect on when they have to step up and take control of a situation.
Finally, don’t turn a blind eye.
Do whatever you can to correct or stop it and if that doesn’t work—make an exit plan. Being in an uncomfortable position and not doing anything about it is toxic. The stress related to it can cause harm beyond the obvious. It’s harder to leave personal relationships and can be equally hard to leave professional relationships, BUT you owe it to yourself to try.
The Imbalance of Power
Here’s a personal example defining one situation in my past. While working in New York City for a large retailer early in my career, I was told by a buyer to lie! I’d worked hard to get in my position and felt like it was going to be a nice, next step in the fashion industry. Although, I wasn’t going to go against my own personal ethical code because “she” said so.
After trying to find a fix and realizing she wasn’t going to budge, I gave my two-week notice. Now, to point out, I had another part time job which paid the bills so I wasn’t unemployed. It was a personal decision, an economic and ethical one but looking back, for me, it was the right one. I have never regretted it for a minute and learned it was more important to be true to myself than anyone else.
Over the years, other situations occurred when the imbalance of power put me in an awkward position both personally and professionally. Some had to be tolerated longer than desired but recognizing and acknowledging the imbalance was the first step to overcoming it and finding my power over the situation.
Once you understand your situation, have talked it through, tried to resolve it and decided on an action plan, you possess the power. The power over your situation; whether it’s asking for more money, looking for another job, or asking for a divorce. The shift of power whether slightly or immensely can make all the difference.
Here is a great visual to contemplate the power struggle. Remember being on a seesaw when you were young? It might have been fun for a minute to be at the top, high in the air without control but the longer you stayed there, it became more uncomfortable! The same was true when you were the one at the bottom holding the other person up high; after a while it seemed mean. Oh, but when you were both equal bouncing up and down, balancing the ride. Now, that was fun! Look at power in the same way; it’s a give and take and sometimes, there is a need for someone to take control. But it should never make you feel bad and it shouldn’t be the norm.
As we grow as a person, community, company or nation, it sometimes takes time to learn an important lesson. Well, “Time’s Up” on this one. We should all know it by now.
Mary Kay lives in Cortland, New York and is taking a sabbatical from technical recruiting to focus on her art and photography and hopes to launch a website soon but is staying active in the Central New York and Rhode Island markets. She has a BA in Liberal Arts from Rhode Island and has worked in the technology industry over the last 20 years as a recruiter or salesperson. She recognizes the need for more women in leadership roles in STEM and business and is trying to figure out what to do about it!