Shifting the Abuse of Power

When I was a kid, my girlfriends got behind me when the scary stranger approached us on the playground with no one else around. As the default spokesperson, I let him know quickly that he was fighting a losing battle and named the reasons why. I was ten years old. Heck if I know if we could carry through on my threats, but we averted danger. A different time, I was nominated to represent girl students when a male teacher displayed misconduct during gym class. And even later, I was not afraid to confront the man who was spreading rumors about me around my hometown. I stuck up for myself, advocated for others, and burned some bridges that liberated me. Certainly, it should remain solid advice not to burn bridges, but when those bridges don’t add to my own well-being, I’m willing to light the match.

In March 2018, I held a funeral…for my third decade of life. To properly honor the demise of my 30s and the genesis of my fourth decade, I told Dusty all I really wanted was a ribeye steak and a slice of peanut butter pie. I’m not much of a cake person. After much research and recommendations from co-workers, Dusty and I found ourselves sitting in the Black Steer restaurant. Our much anticipated medium rare ribeye was reduced to mediocrity in its medium wellness. Dusty aptly responded, “Do you want to send it back? That’s how your mom would order it!” I’m not ever too picky at restaurants because I’m just happy to have someone do the cooking, serve me for once, and clean up the mess.

As I gnawed on my half of our medium-well steak, Dusty overheard the conversation in the booth just next to us. Usually the oblivious one to extraneous conversation, Dusty signaled to me to listen in. Larry Eustachy was the topic, and my ears perked up because I’ve been following this story.

Why in god’s name why would I be interested in the Larry Eustachy story? Two reasons: 1) It’s yet another fascinating display of the human affliction of power differentials and 2) as a consequence of the tumult of the CSU basketball team, a guy from my neck of the woods in Kansas got to shine.

Eustachy’s not the only example, but it’s still intriguing to hear differing responses about power differentials and dynamics. The CIA operative in me took over. What I heard about Eustachy while I eavesdropped from the next booth included the following comments:

  • “It’s just who he is. They just need to get used to it.”
  • “Those boys need to toughen up and grow some balls.”
  • “Boys will be boys.”
  • “Life’s tough. They need to learn that.”
  • “He’s too old to change.”

Words that crossed my mind as I listened to a group of four in their 50s+ (two males, two females) from a gentrified community, while eating in a restaurant where the bill may very well exceed $100, and losing sight of their privilege of walking outside without fear of any offensive comments or actions … Dismissive. Complacent. Myopic. Privileged. Exempted. Patriarchal. Machismo. Virility. Ego. Greed. Misappropriated. Inequitable. Normalizing.

This post is not just about Eustachy. It’s about misappropriation of power. I’m no stranger to the fact that Eustachy has some support from some people. Not from me. Here’s why:

Have you ever worked or lived with someone who abused their power? Where did that power come from? Did it make you feel powerless? If you’ve never experienced this destructive circumstance, consider yourself lucky. And privileged. It’s important to recognize these things about yourself. They’re not bad; it’s just the way it is. You can’t help your privilege anymore than someone who hasn’t been so lucky. But you can recognize it now and realize the inequity in it. Even better, you can do something to correct that inequity. If you don’t think you’ve been privileged, check out this video. (There is one statement in this video that makes me slightly nauseous in its hasty ignorance.)

If you have experienced an abuse of power, I’m with ya! Countless times actually, although some have been more blatant than others. AND I’ve been very privileged in my life. Early on, I learned I did not have the capacity to tolerate abuses of power. The sad thing is, even if I acknowledged I would not tolerate abuses of power, I didn’t always know when it was happening. Age and lack of experience were two reasons; societal dismissiveness was another.

It’s like a broken record… Bobby KnightLarry Eustachy, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar. But it doesn’t always have to be on such a public, large-scale platform. Manipulative parents, egregious managers, overbearing co-workers, school bullies, sexual partners who refuse to acknowledge the importance of consent, litigious blow-hards, teachers who berate their students, a parent who drives drunk and ignores the kids’ requests to stop. Really, just anyone who deploys fear tactics, subterfuge, and/or manipulation to achieve their goals. When does it stop? Is it up to victims to make it stop? Or do we all play a part in holding power-abusers accountable?

Although power and influence often go hand-in-hand, can they be mutually exclusive? Power is not power is not power. In fact, seven types of power, some more effectively utilized for positive influence than others, are often referenced: legitimate, coercive, reward, reference, connection, informational, and expert. What kind of influence do you want to have? Not all types of power create a positive influence, yet people who hold legitimate power positions continue to be held in high regard for creating negative influence. Why do we do this?

Our society has built the smoke screen that filters the view of power-abusers as ‘influential’ with a tone of prestige. The #metoo movement has projected this disparaging calamity onto a global stage. Under the guise of influence, power-abusers have been unconcerned with humanity-based morals, legal ethics, or potential outcomes. Their privileged, protected vision has been clouded with greed, caste, and ego. But now, it is finally becoming more normal to see people who do offensive things be forced into accountability for their actions.

Why do power-abusers do what they do? Mental illness, personal distress, substance abuse, poor coping mechanisms, lack of resources, repeated patterns of past trauma, history of abuse…the list goes on. The point is that it’s nearly impossible to reduce this problem to a simple black-and-white, right-versus-wrong answer.

I’m an empath, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the day. I care. I can’t help but to feel empathy, but at what cost am I willing to sacrifice my own well-being or that of the people who are in my closest orbits? I have finally learned that detachment from other people’s emotions is important because I can’t control what other people feel. Emotions happen to all — even the most stoic — people, but individuals control their own responses to those emotions. Some people are better at regulating their responses than others. I care how I am perceived by others…to a point. I will not sacrifice my well-being for the sake of worrying about another individual’s inability to respond in a healthy way to their own emotions. I am not responsible for them or their actions. I’m done being passive, though I will not ignore the value of perception and empathy.

In spite of my gift of empathy, I believe that power-abusers need to take accountability. I don’t believe public admonition is always required to call out power-abusers, although that method is currently prevalent as a means to vindicate victims. Publicizing is also a form of knowledge sharing and activism if done appropriately. If a power-abuser assumes responsibility and accountability for an action, is it always necessary to publicize the action? I don’t think it always is, but that decision comes down to the power-abuser and the victim, and of course, it depends on the severity of the offense. I think that part of the hope with public admonition is that power-abusers will cease those kinds of behaviors. Maybe they will; maybe they won’t. Some people can rehabilitate; some are beyond help if they don’t want to be helped.

There exists a very fine line between offering support to people and enabling their behavior. Many of us have fallen into the trap of enabling someone we love. You know… when you start out offering all kinds of support, the power-abuser manipulates that support, so that eventually (often unwittingly) all we’re doing is giving them ample opportunity (and the tools) to continue behaving poorly with little to no consequences — all in the name of love or compassion or empathy.

In the professional realm, compassion and empathy may perhaps play a part when conflict arises due to abuse of power, but more than these things, organizations seems to build protocol for misconduct around fear of litigious employees, poor reviews, tarnished reputations, and damage control. The cost? Human capital and organizational culture.

Since 2001, I have held a handful of full-time jobs and just as many side gigs, exposing me to at least nine different organizations’ human resource departments. My own personal definition of ‘human resources’ is different from what it seems like organizations perform. I believe that human resources should be the culmination of building and managing human capital (first) with the ultimate goal of making the organization at large the beneficiary of those efforts (second). Instead, human resources seems to focus on using humans as resources to benefit the organization, as manifested by organizing logistics, reacting to crises instead of enacting useful systems that help prevent them, and prioritizing attention on inflexible rules and hierarchy.

Don’t get me wrong. Human resources employees are necessary, especially in large organizations, and I admire the stoicism that these professionals exhibit. Mitigating workplace power-abusers is especially complex in the attempt to maintain fair treatment of all employees under the umbrella of strict protocols. While I appreciate this sentiment (and often legal requisite), I also know that formal complaints aren’t always submitted because they simply seem futile when you witness a system that drags on with no real resolution in sight. Complaints don’t get made because employees feel hopeless about the process. Since complaints don’t get submitted, they clearly don’t get documented. And when they don’t get documented, the power-abuser remains in the same place doing what they do, abusing the privilege of having such a supportive (or enabling?) human resources department. Supporting power-abusers eventually turns into enabling and perpetuates their behavior and pushes those who feel oppressed further down into the system that was supposedly designed to protect them. And then they do exactly what the guy in the booth next to use at the Black Steer advised from his seat of privilege: they endure by dismissing or ignoring negative behaviors, avoiding power-abusers altogether, withdrawing from work, getting tough, growing some balls, and making excuses for others. Sounds dysfunctional to me.

Peter Drucker would call this a recurring crisis, to be blamed on failing systems. We all sit around and discuss (or yell) about the symptoms we experience, but we don’t evaluate the processes that contribute to the persistent, identifiable, predictable, unfavorable outcomes. Insanity! Human resources has been designed to protect power-abusers just as much, if not more, than victims. When it comes down to brass tacks, we’re all (including human resource employees) victims of bureaucratic systems that lock us into fixed processes that suffocate victims with red tape. This unintended consequence of a well-intentioned concept creates hopelessness and fear of retribution in victims and contributes to the ongoing monster of oppression at the hands of power-abusers.

It’s bad enough that we allow this monster to survive; it’s even worse that we keep feeding it.

If you don’t know the Larry Eustachy story, it’s a fascinating read of decades of misconduct, dismissed by ineffective systems, enabled by privilege and complacency, all at the cost of human capital mowed down in his wake. Our priorities suck! What’s more sad is that Eustachy is only one of so many!

Yet, the world still goes ’round, and no doubt it takes all kinds. Without the bad, we cannot recognize all the good or appreciate our privileges. Power dynamics will always be a thing until the end of humanity. It’s important to surround ourselves with people who serve and support our own well-beings, but it’s also important to have conversations with people who have differing opinions, learn about power differentials, and lead people into becoming stewards to themselves and those around them. Admitting that power differentials occur is the first step.

I call for continued fair practices in human resources but with a much shorter leash, whether that be in the workplace, government, or in schools.

I call for better systems that include root cause analysis, not just documentation of repeated behaviors with no real consequences. And when root causes come into clearer vision, go ahead — give resources to offenders, but leave them accountable for using them instead of powdering their butts in enablement.

I call for parents and leaders who preach anti-bullying to stop bullying their own children and other adults.

I call for all of us to recognize oppression when we’re the ones doing it through our unconscious biases to people we’d least expect.

I call for leaders in all spectrums to empower others and to create more leaders through demonstrating self-advocacy and self-promotion, courage to act, honesty with tact, and education of self and others.

I call for walks-outs when you believe in a cause. My son’s high school recently hosted a walk-out focusing on mental health issues in the shadow of the recent Parkland shooting. I saw a local parent pose the opinion that [paraphrased], “The walk-out is a ridiculous way for kids to skip school. In the real world, do they think I can just walk out of my job if I don’t like something?” Um, yes, actually, you can. But you’ve been made to feel like you can’t. You’ve deemed yourself powerless.

Ultimate power is the power of self — obtained through self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence. Want to read more about these areas of growth? Come on — I dare you. Shift the differential.


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