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Understanding the role of power in sexual harassment cases

You may have heard that sexual harassment is about power, not about sex. This is especially important when the harassment or abuse occurs in a workplace. Companies need to distribute power to maintain order and organization. However, this power must be balanced with the needs and safety of their followers.

For those in power at a workplace, it can be confusing to understand why victims might stay silent. For those who are not in a position of power, it can be frustrating to wonder why you don’t feel like you can voice your concerns.

How does power affect leaders?

Good leaders and bad leaders can be easy to remember, but hard to define. Every culture adjusts their expectations of their leaders to fit current beliefs. Leaders must take responsibility for the impact their actions have on their supporters.

The following are observed ways that power affects a leader:

  • Creates social distance that lowers empathy and sensitivity from both leader and follower.
  • Lowers social inhibition.
  • Encourages an echo-chamber where leaders only hear support.
  • Disrupts their understanding of intent versus the real-world impact.

Power affects every individual differently. However, even leaders with good intentions can affect their followers in negative ways. Sticking with tried and true leadership styles might only keep a flawed system in place.

How can power be used to help?

Anyone can help change their company, employees and CEOs alike. If you notice that your company’s model leaves someone vulnerable, you could have the power to make it right. A person who has power can also help their coworkers in the following ways:

  • Be honest about your position’s potential impact on others.
  • Exercise your skills in empathy.
  • Create safe areas for discussion. Include people with different amounts of power than you.
  • Stay up-to-date on new laws and training opportunities.
  • Speak up when you notice something wrong.

When employees or followers do not feel they are able to speak against an injustice, there is little opportunity for change. This creates a system where the vulnerable and the powerful are locked in a cycle that cannot change. However, with a few courageous and kind people, every workplace can improve the way they use power to protect their employees.

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