By Jonathan Rivett
Question: I’ve been watching the news and allegations about the treatment of women in Parliament and started thinking about how it would apply if I ever saw something like this in my own workplace. I agree with many commentators that if we want to stop disgusting behaviour from continuing, we must call it out.
I also think that for many it’s either daunting, terrifying, dangerous or a futile exercise.
Are there legitimate alternatives to “calling out” the worst kinds of sexism and foul behaviour when it’s done by men with cultural strength, or is standing up to bullies the only way?
Answer: Horror seems to me like an entirely fitting response to allegations about the treatment of women in Parliament and other high-profile industries. What I’ve also found horrifying is the response to some of these allegations (and many others over years and years), responses in which people of great responsibility express sympathy for alleged abusers and deride or dismiss those who’ve claimed to have been abused.
In other words, powerful people siding with other powerful people.
One way of looking at your question is to consider it a matter of personal fortitude – by that I mean, whether or not you “call out” the worst kind of behaviour comes down to whether or not you have the psychological wherewithal to do so. And while it’s absolutely true that in cases like this, it takes extraordinary courage to come forward, to make a report, to intervene, I think a potentially better way of thinking about the question is by considering power first.
Any person could look at a potential contest between themselves, all on their own, and an immovable leviathan and turn away, not through lack of bravery but through lack of power.
Michael Leiter, a professor of organisational psychology in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, says there are, just as you’ve asserted, “real risks in calling out powerful people”.
“Calling someone out is a power move in itself, and one must always have a clear path ahead when making a move against entities with more power than you have.
“That is, it’s a power move if the intent is to expose bad behaviour in order to prompt corrective behaviour or to punish or embarrass while protecting those on the receiving end of bad behaviour. These may be noble aims, but they do not come without risks.”
Are there alternatives? Yes, and Professor Leiter says, they don’t necessarily involve avoiding making this behaviour known.
“One gains a safer position for such actions through anonymity or being part of a larger group or having the protection of another powerful entity, such as law enforcement or the press or an ombudsman position established to field complaints about mistreatment.
“When attributing mistreatment to someone it’s wise to have advice from people who know this world about the conditions that lead to a successful complaint.”
Taking on powerful people is inherently difficult and, in many cases, perilous – that risk can be professional, psychological, social, physical, or a combination of all four. It’s possible, however, to mitigate the danger while still doing the right thing.
“It’s important to bring these things to light, but one has to embark upon doing so with an appreciation of the risks involved and a plan for managing those risks.”
Abuse in the workplace – as with abuse anywhere – is almost always misuse of power. But not everyone exploits their relative “cultural strength” (as you’ve articulately put it), and it’s through – or with the help and advice of – a powerful institution or individual that you trust that you can call out harmful actions without exposing yourself to the risks you might otherwise.
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Source: Thanks smh.com