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Taking the Helm: Confront harassment with honesty, courage

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

With recent news reports on harassment from famous, powerful people, the main question I hear is: “How can this behavior still happen in 2017?” The short answer is that it continues because it works for the bully or harasser – and they know they can get away with it, usually because of a power imbalance between the harassed and the harasser.
First, let’s consider how we’re socialized as children. Most of us were told by our parents that if we didn’t have anything nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all. This starts many of us on a path toward conflict avoidance.

At its foundation, harassment is fundamentally a conflict situation that stems from a power imbalance between people. Someone either wants us to do something we don’t want to do or does something to us that we don’t want done. We often comply because of the power the other person has.

Because of the conflict avoidance behaviors we learned as children, we try to ignore inappropriate demands made on us or pretend the behavior isn’t a big deal, which only enables harassers to continue their behavior.   

In his book “Power,” Jeffrey Pfeffer states: “People avoid difficult situations and difficult people, rather than paying the emotional price of standing up for themselves and their views.”

Harassment and power

Once people have a little power, it may go to their head. For example, a new bosun may feel power over the members of the deck team. This may be displayed by acting superior to the deckhands, or perhaps by barking orders and expecting obedience. These types of behaviors demonstrate that power has gone to the bosun’s head.   

Power affects everyone who has it in different ways. People in power sometimes become drunk on their authority, which means they don’t make the best decisions or behave in the most favorable ways. Perhaps they become overconfident, which leads to poor decisions. Perhaps they no longer feel constrained by social norms, like touching someone inappropriately, which can lead to sexual harassment. Perhaps they ignore the good work done by those around them and claim all credit for themselves. The list goes on. The important point here is that power is the force that enables a harasser or bully to do what they do.   

What can the harassed do?

How do we eliminate harassment and bullying in the workplace? The short answer is that we probably never will. But in individual circumstances, we can stand up to the person doing the harassing. This is the challenge. We must face our fear of conflict and speak up.

Confronting someone involves many aspects, most of which hinge on the power the other person holds: this person holds my job in their hands; this person holds my evaluation in their hands; this person has the ear of the boss and can say bad things about me; etc. We need to stand up to harassers with full knowledge of the loss we may face. It’s the fear of loss that  predators use to get their way.

I realize that it’s easy to talk about facing fear, but it isn’t easy to do. In fact, purposefully engaging in conflict may be one of the hardest things we can do.  Consider the following strategies when speaking up to the harasser:

  • Stay focused on your priorities for the discussion, don’t get distracted
  • Be straight forward, honest and direct
  • Be assertive. Use ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements: I need, I think or I feel, instead of you must, you should or you need. Own your statements.
  • Review expectations of job performance standards to remind everyone what is – and is not – part of the work to be done.

What can a leader do?

  • If a harassment complaint comes to you, believe it. It has taken great courage on the part of the person to open up and start the conversation. Don’t ignore what’s being told to you.
  • Don’t rush to judgment.
  • Ask for details of the complaint in writing. This will start a paper trail.
  • Follow through by looking into the matter.
  • Take action once the facts are laid out.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments are welcome below.

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