Human Resources, Leadership

How to Talk About Power in the Workplace

March 2, 2018

How to Talk About Power in the Workplace

Whether it involved company cultures (Uber) or specific individuals in positions of power, 2017 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. Another 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

2017 showed that those without power (victims and potential victims) are now 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

Training and posting values is a good start. But what happens when leadership tolerates bad behavior? Unsurprisingly, research shows harassment is more likely to occur in such environments. Just look at Uber and Thinx, who ignored and even encouraged bad behavior as part of their company culture to protect high performers. To actually prevent issues of power and harassment, companies need to create a culture of compassion and respect where 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.