At the time of writing this, most of the world has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and it feels like the world is upside down. In the middle of the crisis we have also seen protests around the world against racism at a scale we have not seen before. Many companies have been forced to rethink their contribution to the problem and inherent racism in their practices and even naming of their products. This has all been sparked by the continual brutality of police against black people in the USA with the brutal murder of George Floyd being the straw that broke the camel’s back. The outcry has mostly been against racism, and rightly so. However, there is another component that has not received as much attention and that is abuse of power. This brings to mind the old adage that power corrupts. When a police badge comes with unfettered power, one should expect the inevitable abuse of that power.
During the lockdown in South Africa many questions have been asked about whether the government has been abusing its power. In declaring a national state of emergency in terms of the Disaster Management Act to deal with the pandemic instead of the International Health Regulations Act, the government was suddenly endowed with far reaching powers, which created the platform for regulations that stripped South Africans of some of their constitutional rights. The government has since been walking a very tight rope, promulgating restrictions that would otherwise be unheard of. There is a very thin line between exercising power in the interest of the greater good and abusing power with the justification that it is in the interest of the greater good.
In organisations the abuse of power can be as damaging as what we have seen in the consequences of the actions of errant police officers in the USA. Many an employee has suffered brutal psychological trauma in organisations as a result of abuse of power. It affects the morale and productivity, and can over time severely damage relationships and the reputation of the organisation.
Abuse of power can take many forms such as a CEO using his/her position to feed misinformation to the Board about an individual he wants to get rid of, bullying or harassment, pressuring staff to act against policy or distorting facts, impeding access to information which in turns affects a colleague’s ability to perform, humiliating an individual in a less senior position in front of others, condescending reactions to the comments or questions from someone in a less senior position, enforcing company rules on others while not following them yourself, putting personal interest before that of the organisation and using your position to taint someone’s reputation in order to deflect attention away from your own unethical behaviour, to name but a few.
Abuse of power is not always exercised at the individual level. Institutional abuse is the maltreatment of someone or a group of individuals by a system of power. It can also run across borders. For example, investors in one country using their financial muscle to exert their will in another sovereign country (I strongly suggest that you read “How the world works” by Noam Chomsky, to gain some insight into how the USA has crippled developing countries in order to advance the wellbeing of USA businesses). Another example would be a global federation where those organisations in the richer countries dominate at the expense of the development of those in developing countries.
Where abuse of power is allowed to thrive, it can have a fundamental, long lasting impact on the culture of the organisation, including lack of trust, low productivity, stressed employees, high absenteeism and high turnover. Over time the price the organisation pays can be much higher than what meets the eye and the crippling effect very difficult to reverse. A wolf in sheep’s clothing can, if left unchecked, bring an organisation to its knees. Think Travis Kalanick (Uber), Markus Jooste (Steinhoff), John Stumpf (Wells Fargo), etc., the list is endless. I personally know a few wolves in sheep’s clothing, and some of them hide in places where you would least expect them and often revered because their external persona project ethical leadership while their true nature is neatly tucked away. We all have met wolves in sheep’s clothing at some point in our careers.
What makes this a difficult issue to deal with at times, is the fact that those who abuse their power often hide in the shadows and let others (knowingly or unsuspectingly) do their dirty work for them. The invisible hand behind the hammer can be hard to identify and often only clear to the discerning mind. Sometimes the victims themselves are not fully aware of the invisible hand, who quite often comes across as charming and on the victim’s side.
The truth of the matter is that bullies know their source of power and often have the means to take on protracted legal battles or control the legal outcomes. More often than not this results in victims not wanting to take them on. They will therefore not report the abuse because they feel powerless or go into a state of learned helplessness. Sometimes, when abusers are dealing with a strong opponent, they will strike first and, for example, make serious accusations against the individual, forcing the victim into a situation where they have to spend their energy on defending themselves and fighting ghosts as they become tainted.
At the centre of abuse of power is a lack of empathy. If you can block your own ability to see the pain you’re inflicting, it becomes so much easier to abuse your power. The less empathy you have for others, the more you are able to justify your attack and convince yourself that you are doing it for the right reasons. With the increase in narcissism in our modern society, this is likely to increase. Narcissistic individuals are only interested in self and do not consider the pain inflicted on others. I am excluding psychopaths as they do not have the capacity to feel empathy for others and can take abuse of power to a whole different level – a discussion for another day.
Why does the phenomenon of abuse of power seem to be unstoppable? My guess is that there are too many enablers in the game. Abusers of power often rally troops around them that support their cause and achieve this due to their position of power and sometimes their social skills and ability to seduce. Sometimes people are so enamoured by the fact that they are close to a person in a position of power that they only see the self-created halo and nothing else. Or, the abuser holds their ability to advance to, or stay in the top echelons in his/her hands.
These willing participants then either actively turn a blind eye when they become aware of the audacious acts of abuse or they actively participate in ostracising the victim of abuse as they would much rather hold on to their position in the in-group, or avoid becoming the next victim, than come to the rescue of the person under attack. Sometimes they see themselves as being unable to do anything about that – learned helplessness – and then just stand by and watch, justifying their lack of ethical courage. Truth of the matter is that not doing anything to stop the abuse of power, makes the observer complicit in the abuse.
Allowing situations where people’s reputations are tarnished, without giving them a fair opportunity to defend themselves, is inexcusable. Yet many have mastered the art of closing their eyes and ears and not speaking up. Surprisingly this often comes from people who are supposed to be in a position where they can deal with the situation, such as Board members dealing with a CEO who abuses his/her power.
Another key category of potential enablers is the media. Journalists constantly run the risk of unwittingly becoming the hammer of the invisible hand. There have also been many whispers of reporters taking money to write a story from a particular angle and portray some people in a certain light. The internet is littered with stories of media houses and/or reporters taking money to run with stories. It is imperative that journalists ensure that they ask the right questions and verify facts before they publish anything that could harm someone’s reputation and thus adversely affect their whole career and life. Or, when offered a bribe, think about how many lives will be destroyed in the process. It is not only the individual’s life that is destroyed. Their families also become casualties in the process.
People not speaking up when they see abuse of power in the organisation, is indicative of an unhealthy culture and a climate of fear. Key to building an ethical culture is ensuring that people are not afraid to speak up when they see something wrong. This starts with the Board and that tone must filter down in the organisation. When a dominant CEO abuses his/her power and the Board does not hold them accountable, the signal that is being sent to the rest of the organisation is that you dare not speak up when you see something wrong. And this is how Boards become enablers of abuse of power prevailing in the organisation. I remember once whispering in the ear of a Chairman about wrongdoing on the part of a CEO. The response I received was ‘Mr X is a good man, I wish the two of you could get along’. My relationship with Mr X had nothing to do with it. The longer the enablers keep quiet the more damage gets done down the line. It is inevitable.
Ethical courage means not being complicit in your silence when you see colleagues being abused or being shunned by organisational leaders or peers. Sometimes executives are aware of their peers abusing staff and they say nothing. In an ethical culture, leaders hold each other accountable.
Abusers of power get away with it because of veils of secrecy, lack of ethical courage and supporters/accomplices who know in their hearts that it is wrong, yet reman quiet. Vicious cycles have a way of circling back to those who remain silent witnesses. If you don’t come to the rescue of those in need, the unhealthy culture may make you the next victim. If we remove the enablers out of the picture, the abusers won’t last long. So, each one of us should constantly ask ourselves this question: Are you sure you are not an enabler?