Power needs to be put on the agenda in the boardroom

By Oscar David | November 14, 2017 | 2 min read

The #MeToo discussion that has arisen in connection with accusations of sexual intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein has again brought to the fore the question as to how we can suppress the abuse of power. In the Netherlands too, #MeToo has made quite a stir. Among other things, the malpractices during and after the initiation ceremonies in the defense force have upset many. ING has decided to cancel the performance of House of Cards'  actor Kevin Spacey in the Rotterdam Ahoy due to accusations of inappropriate behavior. A lot of discussion has also arisen in the Netherlands in connection with the statement made by casting director Job Gosschalk.

Tackling unethical behavior in organizations starts with putting it on the agenda at the highest level, namely in the boardroom. Just as the enterprise's financial well-being, so too the culture should be discussed regularly – instead of only when incidents occur. The new Corporate Governance Code underlines the importance of this.

When bosses damage those in lower positions through (sexual) intimidation, they are no longer worthy of their position. It is up to the leadership of organizations to create a climate in which employees can feel safe and respected. The tone at the top plays an important role here. Top management should be a role model as far as integrity and ethical leadership are concerned, so that employees can mirror themselves by the behavior in the boardroom. Only then is the leadership legitimized in setting boundaries for misconduct.

Shadow archetype of personality

The abuse of power has been taking place since time immemorial. Why is that so? The key lies in our instincts. The urge to dominate and predominate, monetary profit and sexual misconduct belong to our most dominant instinctive tendencies. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, has rightly claimed that instincts are suppressed for the sake of socially acceptable behavior. However, at some point that which is suppressed tends to manifest itself without restraint. The psychiatrist Carl Jung called that the shadow archetype of personality.

In order to prevent perverse behavior, it is important that the shadow aspect is exposed to daylight. Not in order to act accordingly, but to have a conscious choice between our instincts and our moral compass as a guiding principle. It is up to directors and supervisors to recognize the undercurrents in the organization, to discuss them, and where necessary to set limits to them. Undercurrents in human behavior are not always visible, but they are manifest nonetheless. Whether or not to use power compulsively for the benefit of sexual feelings is an example of this. The art is to uncover such undercurrents, so that they become manageable. This demands an insight into the prevailing culture and human motivations.

Thick fog

Directors and supervisors can be expected to have the capacities to signal this undercurrent and to discuss it with each other. However, this is like driving in thick fog. You do that cautiously, and preferably not at all even, due to the limited field of view and the significant chance of a slip up. The Weinstein Company's Board of Directors will undoubtedly have received signals about the behavior of its CEO. And would the top management of the Dutch defense organizations really have known nothing about misuse in the barracks? People, and that includes directors, simply have a tendency to consciously or unconsciously move away from something which they cannot get a handle on. Moreover, directors have overfull agendas, which makes it easy not to prioritize awkward topics such as power and integrity, even if most of them acknowledge the importance thereof.

If the undercurrent is discussed, it not only demands a critical look at the organization, but also the courage and vulnerability of facing their own ability to function. In such consultations, questions like “How do we want to deal with power honestly?” and “What do we consider to be (possible) excesses?” should be posed and answered. Sometimes this will lead to adjusted regulations or better described guidelines. However, most importantly the topic should be open for discussion and thus manageable, starting at the top, but eventually for the entire organization. For this reason, the temptations of power should be regularly put on the agenda of directors and supervisors. Rather today than tomorrow.

Oscar David is Adjunct Professor at TIAS School for Business and Society and author of The Integrity of Power.

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