Power tripping: what to do when someone misuses their authority at work

Power tripping: when someone abuses their authority at work

“Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” French philosopher Montesquieu’s theory was that people with power have a natural tendency to abuse it. His words seem to be as true today as they were in the 18th century. Just take a look at the huge number of claims of harassment voiced during the #MeToo movement, as well as the many high-profile cases such as those citing President Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and the late Jeffrey Epstein. Here in the UK, we are no more advanced: only a minority of universities have a policy against student-staff relationships.


But what exactly is abuse of power in the business world? We hear a lot about sexual and psychological harassment, but are there other forms that the abuse may take? How can we recognise them? And how can employers strive to prevent them from happening? To find out more, we looked into what happens when power dynamics in the workplace become toxic.

What does “abuse of power” mean exactly?

Awareness of sexual harassment has increased in recent years, but it would be unwise to limit the definition of abuse of power to these particular forms. Abuse of power can be defined as any excessive exercise of a power by an individual. It’s when that individual uses their capabilities outside the usual scope of action or, in simpler terms, they exceed the limit of their rights. Legally, an employer has the right to:

  • Change the working conditions of employees (but they may not change employment contracts without employee consent)
  • Impose disciplinary action (but they may not proceed to dismissal without genuine and serious cause)
  • Choose to hire one person over another (but they may not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or religion, for example).

Additionally, any decision made by an individual employer that is not made purely in the best interests of the company, but is instead primarily intended to directly harm an employee’s working conditions, may be considered an abuse of power.

While sexual harassment may seem the most “obvious” misuse of power in the workplace, it is not the only form. Misuse of power can also manifest as intimidation, humiliation, threats or mockery. Through these means, employers can isolate targeted employees, hound them by micromanaging their work, demote them without good cause, overload them with work or refuse to give them with enough to do, constantly criticise them, demand justifications for their actions or publicly dismiss any ideas or proposals they put forward––the list is long.

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The Power Paradox

While every abuse of power case is unique, it is common for those in positions of power to be tempted to abuse it, even though they have likely acquired that power through genuine, laudable qualities. This is what the American professor and psychologist Dacher Keltner calls “the power paradox”: “In the behavioural research I’ve conducted over the past 20 years, I’ve uncovered a disturbing pattern: while people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness, and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish, and unethical behaviour,” he notes. Keltner also found that businesspeople in positions of power are three times more likely than their subordinates to interrupt colleagues, ignore them, or take other unwelcome actions during meetings, or to raise their voices or insult others in the office.

Power contributes to a loss of empathy among those who wield it. Because those in power no longer feel compelled to pay attention to the needs of others to ensure their own progression and position, they tend to develop a lack of both empathy and compassion. This not only makes it more difficult for them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but it’s also likely to make them more impulsive and more likely to take risks. These phenomena were observed by Professor Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Canada, who observed what was happening in the brains of people in positions of power and those in subordinate positions. It turned out that in the “powerful” group, the functioning of mirror neurons, which are responsible for empathy, was impaired. Professor Obhi provided scientific evidence that the brain chemistry of powerful individuals can hinder their efforts to show empathy and compassion towards others.

Serious consequences

The lack of empathy that so often accompanies power misuse can have profoundly serious consequences, both for the victimised employee and for the company.

In a survey conducted by American professors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson with 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, about half of those surveyed who reported being subjected to abuse of power said they responded by deliberately reducing their efforts and/or lowering the quality of their work. This demotivation can be extremely powerful itself, sometimes even leading employees to stop caring about their work altogether.

Companies suffer when there is a widespread lack of motivation, but those individuals who are being mistreated should not be forgotten. Stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation and a deep sense of injustice are some of the most common symptoms among the victims. If it happens consistently and repeatedly, the misuse of power can ultimately lead to burn-out and depression.

For Marion, an office manager at a small communications agency, it took a while before she could adequately describe her condition: “My boss often asked me to do little things for him, which were not part of my job, such as running errands, booking his holidays, going to his place to get his keys. At first, I did these things for him as a favour, but then it ended up encroaching on my actual job. I didn’t know how to say no, but I was getting more and more stressed, and was going to work with knots in my stomach. I felt that something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t talk about it. Eventually, I went to my doctor about my anxiety attacks, which were becoming more and more frequent, and he immediately diagnosed me with burn-out.”

Talking about it isn’t enough: the spectre of sexual harassment

Although there’s increased visibility of workplace abuses of power, particularly with regards to cases of sexual harassment, there’s still an enormous amount to do. It’s particularly worth remembering that, according to a survey carried out by the Everyday Sexism project in conjunction with the TUC, more than half of women surveyed in the UK reported being the victims of unwanted sexual behaviour at work. However, only 20% of those affected had opened up to a colleague about the issue, and only 5% had spoken to someone who potentially had the authority to act on what had happened.

In seeking to remedy this, the UK government instituted a public consultation in mid-2019, which sought opinions on whether “the current laws on this issue provide the protections they’re supposed to; considering whether there are any gaps and thinking about what more can be done at a practical level to ensure people are properly protected at work”. Nevertheless, progress on the issue remains difficult to measure since nearly a year after the consultation closed, no steps have been taken based on the results of the consultation. Indeed, the results themselves have not been revealed publicly yet.
In an environment such as this, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that victims of sexually-oriented abuses of power have to rely on solutions and structures initiated by their employers.

Prevention campaigns and support groups

The majority of studies agree that in order to deal with the various issues related to abuse of power, prevention efforts must first be put in place within companies.

According to Christine Marsan, a psychologist, coach and the author of ‘Violence in Business and How to Avoid It’, the first step is educating executives about the complexity of the workplace as it is today: “Young people today need meaning, they need power to be shared, and they seek to understand the purpose of the actions they are being asked to take. It’s no longer possible to manage by diktat. The most common complaints relating to abuses of power are regarding orders that make no sense, contradictory demands, management by stress…because managers promote the values of openness and cooperation but fail to apply them in their own management, managers get trapped in their own contradictions, and will pass them on to others through ordering one thing while doing another.” To remedy this, it’s necessary to train business leaders to share power with the lower members of the hierarchy, to recognise the uniqueness of each individual employee, and to adapt to a view of business that is more progressive: specifically, organisations where decisions are more and more collective, and where power is no longer entirely held by a single person or leadership group.

In its practical guide, entitled “Sexual harassment and harassment at work: technical guidance,” the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission gives employees a legal explanation and practical examples of how to tackle and respond effectively to harassment, including examples of harassment and victimisation, the effects of harassment in the workplace, employers’ responsibilities and how to prevent and respond to harassment.

While #MeToo has enabled an undeniable release of speech and the implementation of certain measures against sexual harassment and power misuses, there is still a long way to go when it comes to prevention in business.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: WTTJ

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