Coaching the Elephant in the Room – Harassment


As this blog illuminates how to use coaching in the workplace to unleash human potential, we ask the question – can you coach awareness of the potential (or actual) abuse of power?

It’s become almost like a game…waiting to see the next announcement of a powerful person being publicly accused of and punished for sexual harassment. The accused have been fired, threatened with ethics investigations, stripped of honors and memberships, and replaced in already-shot movies. Their responses to the accusations have varied from shame and apology to embarrassed fumbling to belligerent denial.

But this is not about sex. Even the lewder tales, among them public fondling and open bathrobes, are less about carnal pleasure than they are about power.

This idea is not new. Let’s time machine back to 1991 and the Anita Hill case. Remember when she accused the nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment? The controversy inspired scores of articles, including a New York Times piece that cited Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington. “Harassment is a way for a man to make a woman vulnerable.”

Vulnerable. This is not sexy or seductive. This is about power dynamics. I’m big and strong and you are small and weak.

The Times spoke with another psychologist, Dr. Louise Fitzgerald, from the University of Illinois, who said that only about 25 percent of cases of sexual harassment are botched seductions and fewer than 5% involve a bribe or threat for sex. The rest? Assertions of power.

Fast forward. According to a 2017 study titled “Sexual Aggression When Power Is New: Effects of Acute High Power on Chronically Low-Power Individuals” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, newly-felt authority increases harassment tendencies among people who had been feeling low in power over a previous extended period, whether male or female.

The study’s authors suggest that the abuse of power could be compensating for feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, uncertainty, and a lack of self-confidence. Once power is obtained, the pendulum swings from meek to mighty and the likelihood of misusing that power increases.

To paraphrase the 19th-century British politician Lord Acton, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Updated to reflect our modern reviews of harassment – empowering the unempowered increases the chance of abuse.

According to the abstract, the researchers hypothesize that “power can indeed create opportunities for sexual aggression—but that it is those who chronically experience low power who will choose to exploit such opportunities.” They studied chronically low-power men AND women (let’s not forget sexual harassment is not just a male behavior) and learned a few fascinating things:

  • Low-power men placed in a high-power role showed the most hostility in response to a denied opportunity with an attractive woman.
  • Chronically low-power men and women given acute power were the most likely to say they would inappropriately pursue an unrequited workplace attraction.
  • Chronically low-power men given power over an attractive woman showed increased harassment behavior; high power men given this same power did not show the same increase.

The observation? “People who see themselves as chronically denied power appear to have a stronger desire to feel powerful and are more likely to use sexual aggression toward that end.”

So. Self-confidence matters. If we have a positive self-image and strong self-esteem, we can manage our emotions and actions more effectively. How we define “power” matters. Is power a vehicle for controlling, even dominating, others, or does it elicit a sense of responsibility. How comfortable we are with our own power matters. Does power make us feel uneasy and, if so, how do we make friends with a healthy level of power?

All ideal coaching topics ripe for inquiry.

  • How do you define power?
  • How does power, or being powerful, make you feel?
  • Where do you feel power in your body?
  • What story have you told about yourself about power?
  • When you are put in a position of power, what is the first thing you think? Do?
  • When in your life have you felt most powerful? Least powerful? How did you feel about yourself in each situation?
  • When you are in a position of power, how do you see others around you? How does this perception change when your power is reduced?
  • Who are your role models for powerful people? What do you admire about how they manage their power?
  • How do you react toward others who have more power than you?
  • How is power used in your organization?
  • How do you know who has power in your organization and who does not?

If we want to address the elephant in the room, let’s shift the conversation away from sex and squarely to power. Who has it, how they use it, and how we can coach toward a productive and positive management of it.



About the Author

Tina Robinson is a workplace futurist and talent management strategist on a mission to shift how we think and feel about work. She believes the secret lies in the magical meeting point of human-centered processes and systems within organizations and the unleashing of individual mindsets. Tina’s imperative, as a business leader, human potential coach, consultant, facilitator, and teacher, is to empower people to bring their “whole selves” to work – and to find joy in doing so. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two crazy pet parrots.