In my experience, in order to effectively stop abuse at work, we have to support both the victim and the perpetrator in understanding and appropriately using power dynamics.
Most of us spend our days at work feeling like this:
Often perpetrators feel this way even more than victims of harassment. Those who feel powerless are much more likely to perpetrate abuse than those who understand the power they have. This is because we justify exaggerated and abusive behavior when we are “defending ourselves.” Research shows that men are more likely to perpetrate harassment if they feel insecure in their jobs, for example. The cliché for this is the “pecking order,” referring to the hierarchy by which chickens abuse each other. The chicken with the most status pecks at the chicken with the next most status, and down the chain. The classic description of this with humans is the boss abuses the employee, who abuses his wife, who abuses their child, who is a bully at school.
We end up like this:
I hope we can all agree that it’s time to be better than chickens. The only way I have found to really understand and shift power dynamics in each of our individual situations is to understand the root cause of power and powerlessness.
It may sound trite, but the root cause of power and powerlessness is not government systems or cultural training, it is our thoughts. The good news about this is that if we needed to wait for government systems and culture to change in order to shift power dynamics, we would probably be screwed. Those structures shift at such a slow pace that waiting for them may help future generations, but it will not help you create a healthy, safe workplace culture right now.
We often identify so strongly with our thoughts, believing they are observations, that we make assumptions about our powerlessness that are not correct.
In reality, all of us have the same amount of time as Beyoncé and Elon Musk, and our personal power is no different. We may be raised with assumptions about our personal power, like our time, but just because we believe something does not make it true.
There is always an objective reality to any situation, and that reality is always neutral. Everyone can agree on it.
Each of us has a thought about that objective reality.
Our thoughts create our feelings.
Our feelings motivate what we do or don’t do in response to the neutral reality.
What we do or don’t do determines the impact we make on the neutral reality and the result we get.
The Thought Model I am talking about looks like this:
When I work with my clients in their Power Dynamics Master Certification Trainings, I shorten the thought model to look like this:
In any given circumstance, there are thousands of thoughts available, and many of us have multiple thoughts about one circumstance. For example, a problem I see my clients run into quite often is debating the truth of a very negative thought or its opposite. She thinks, “I’m going to get fired from my job,” and then she thinks, “I should be more positive, so I’ll just tell myself, ‘I’m definitely not going to get fired!’” But, “I’m definitely not going to get fired” doesn’t feel believable to her, and so she believes her only option is to go back to believing that she is going to get fired.
Our brains are always inclined to go toward the negative because that is how they have evolved to protect us for thousands of years. If you lived in a cave and are being hunted by a mountain lion, it would help you to survive to be constantly worried about the negative. But now that we are not in imminent danger of being eaten by wild animals, our brain’s tendency toward the negative does not find a release in saving us from actual danger. If we can experience threat, defend ourselves from it, and escape, we feel a mental release and even exhilaration. But that is not the type of threat most of us experience anymore. Instead, when we are experiencing a conflict at work our brain is primed for a physical threat and we develop a low-level, constant anxiety that actually puts us in more danger. When we are in a constant state of anxiety, we are so distracted by perceived small problems that it actually puts us in more danger of real harm. We have dulled our instinctive fear senses so much that we are less likely to see real danger.
Even though the fact that our brains lean toward the negative means we have working brains (yay!), it is worth doing the work to retrain our unconscious brains to put ourselves in a more powerful place.
The first thing we want to do in order to do that is to validate where we are now. If you feel anxiety around the workplace culture you are creating, it is likely valid and justified. Arguing with it will not do you any good, and the worst thing that will happen is a feeling. So, for example, notice the difference between these two thought models:
Circumstance: I own a business.
Thought: I might hurt my employees.
Action: Avoid my employees.
Result: My employees are less likely to tell me if there’s a problem.
Circumstance: I own a business.
Thought: I can find information to help me with my business.
Action: Read this book.
Result: Learn tools that I can share to create a better company culture.
Notice how the second thought model is more positive and forward-moving, but it is not the direct opposite of the original thought. Often, we believe we have to choose a negative perspective on an issue if the opposite extreme does not feel believable. But, just because an extremely positive thought does not feel believable, it does not mean an extremely negative thought is true. In fact, neither are the objective reality. Either is simply a choice. There are thousands of other choices. I think about it as though a circumstance is a literal rock:
The circumstance that rocks exist remains true no matter what thought you choose about them. The same is true with every part of reality. Now, my best friend likes to say, “But what about human trafficking and child abuse? Those can’t be neutral.” It’s true that with some circumstances we want to choose thoughts that feel negative. If my brother dies, I want to feel grief. But choices still exist. For example, many people spend so much energy believing “child abuse should not exist” that they have no energy left over to do anything to stop child abuse. Believing that abuse, harassment, discrimination, or inappropriate behavior should not exist does nothing to stop it. Acknowledging that it does exist lets us move forward to choosing a thought that will create a feeling that will motivate us to make an impact on the issues we care about.
In order to shift power dynamics, the simple truth is that we have to look at the root cause of the power imbalance: Our thoughts. Many of us were raised to be people pleasers, which is one way we learn to give our power away. People pleasing is always lying because it is not representing how we truly feel about a circumstance. Generally, we believe that if we say what another person wants to hear, that person will like us, and that will keep us safe. In reality, we don’t give the other person a chance to like us because we’ve told them something contrary to what we actually believe. We’ve said “yes” when we mean “no” (or “no” when we mean “yes’). Any time we do this, it is like we are taking our Universe-given duty to protect our soul and placed it on another person. We have given our power away. Later, we are angry, as though the other person did something to us, when really we have not learned to use our power to protect ourselves.
An example of this came when I was going through my own sexual harassment experience, and I see this often with clients. When my boss would massage my shoulders or lean his body on me, I would uncomfortably laugh. I was terrified. But I had also been lectured that my boss being happy was crucial to keeping my job. And, having grown up as a people pleaser, I did not honor my duty to protect myself.
Now, I do not look back and blame myself or any other person who has not confronted a boss in that type of situation. I was genuinely preserving my safety and my job, I believed. But I had entrenched beliefs that it was not acceptable for me to say no to a man in power. I also had a recurring, nagging thought in my mind, “maybe there’s something wrong with me, and I really don’t deserve respect.” When that thought would come up, I would argue with it and try to repress it, which turned it into an underlying unconscious assumption. I thought it was “bad” to believe I didn’t deserve respect, but the thought “I do everything right and deserve respect” did not feel believable, and so I thought I was stuck with the negative belief.
It was not until I looked directly and clearly at these thoughts using the Thought Model structure that I was able to truly take action to keep myself safe. Once I questioned my people pleasing and self-defeating beliefs, I did not immediately transition into positive sunshine-and- rainbows thinking, but I was able to choose thoughts that motivated action to keep me safe. I continued reporting what my boss was doing and did not give up until I found someone with the authority he would listen to, who was willing to tell him to stop. This meant that I did not give up after the first three things I tried to get the behavior to stop. I kept going because I let go of disempowering expectations that “harassment shouldn’t happen,” and I embraced the belief that my career was worth protecting.
Beliefs are just thoughts we think over and over again. We have the opportunity to question whether we can absolutely know whether our thought is true, how we react when we believe our thought, and who we would be if that thought didn’t exist. Once we have looked into these crucial questions and explored our other options, it becomes clearer where we are giving away our power.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.