The topic of sexual harassment in the workplace is so very important, and your role as an executive leader makes your inquiry a most appropriate focus. I do not think this is a bubble (I certainly hope it is not). I do not believe that boards or CEOs are going to act stupidly or superficially about this (in general, I feel both are completely capable of operating avoidantly on cultural matters, but I think this now may be embraced differently). Of course, time will tell, yet I am optimistic that a generally wise response will become more and more evident. I hope to encourage and influence this, here.
If to gain perspective we adjust our gaze slightly, we note that a core dynamic in this subject relates to forces contributing to women and men acting on the long-held belief that women will not speak their truth, and that women’s truth, if spoken, can be dismissed or rationalized into insignificance. Most organizational cultures lack effective policies and processes for recourse by women who wish to speak their truth without the threat or possibility of reprisal. My vision is for business leaders to become the articulate wise elders, serving as models to all stakeholders, and hopefully to the government sector where leadership has so easily diluted the right thing to do in the name of votes and net worth accumulation.
The social evolution to acceptance about the high priority human respect merits irrespective of rank or privilege will fail in the midst of adolescents. While the world has a shortage of adults, only adults have the capacity to provide the discerning wisdom to effectively restructure cultural assumptions. How likely is it that CEOs and boards will provide discerning wisdom, if they have presided over cultures of disrespect?
Sexual harassment appears to require a change in cultural perspective and process that should be presided over by women. For lasting resolution, both “sides” must embrace humility, and collaborate to assure healing. Men can be allies, but let’s not waste time trying to argue that men, regardless of their nominal authority or the degree to which they have embraced their feminine side, can understand this in the way women do. It resides specifically in female DNA molecules of historic unresolved trauma.
Now we see the mounting call for zero-tolerance where sexual disrespect of people is concerned. Certainly this includes assault to bodies, and harm to wellbeing. Will it also extend to correcting inequality in pay for women and men? For sociopathic disproportion in pay, and privileges for workers? For narcissism and anger management dysfunction among those in high authority? For disproportion in decision-making?
It reminds me of my days working in South Africa 12-years after the declarations to end Apartheid. Those public agreements among Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk — two truly adult human beings — relate strongly to the current social epic unfolding in America. Social change of such magnitude requires a constructive conspiracy and collaboration that endures.
Look at the model words of hope and wisdom from that astonishing South African social intersection:
What is taking place in South Africa is such a deed – a deed resounding over the earth — a deed of peace. It brings hope to all South Africans. It opens new horizons for Sub-Saharan Africa. It has the capacity to unlock the tremendous potential of our country and our region. The new era which is dawning in our country, beneath the great southern stars, will lift us out of the silent grief of our past and into a future in which there will be opportunity and space for joy and beauty – for real and lasting peace.
— F. W. DeKlerk, Nobel lecture, 1993
With historic leadership, Nelson Mandela displayed statesmanship and completely remarkable diplomacy, widely implementing the practices of reconciliation and inclusiveness. He realized that new social norms can only be sustained after substantial healing.
This is core to the South African cultural transformation. Rather than placing an emphasis on reprisal and revenge, which cause new forms of pain and deepen the divide of disrespect, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Throughout this process, the stories of South Africans were patiently recorded in their own words, preserved and protected — records of innumerable traumatic truths, now held for the ages with sacred respect. The process is highly spiritual and disproportionately powerful, healing where revenge and reprisal would prolong scarring and suffering. Concurrently, inclusion practices were crafted and nurtured to assure peaceful conversations connecting diverse voices with higher purposes.
That is a model for America, now. The summary firing of celebrities is dramatic, but it oddly is performed by CEOs and boards that presided over culture where women feared to refuse assault, or feared to report the bad acts and actors. Additional healing must occur, and the wisdom of these CEOs and Boards must become very clearly evident, lest they err using power to deflect from their leadership failures.
It’s complicated. Complication detracts from clarity and focus. For further consideration, here are just a few complicated dimensions affecting cultures of abuse and disrespect:
- As stated by Rich Lowry, Editor, National Review, on Nov. 24, 2017: “Any revolution has its pitfalls. There will be false allegations that will be believed. There will be a conflation of relatively minor infractions with criminal acts. And, in all likelihood, there will be an over-correction that will create its own wrongs. But a model of predation practiced by scruple-less powerful men is getting destroyed before our eyes, and it’s a very good thing.”
- Perhaps the great problems of the world today are attributable to the imbalance of masculine and feminine energy. Surely we lack the willingness to patiently listen and inquire thoughtfully, the nurturance of intuition and feelings, and the wise synthesis of diverse perspectives.
- Ignoring science while flailing defensively is a fool’s errand. Our newly emerging scientific understanding of sociobiology (including “evolutionary psychology”) can help to inform understanding and aid resolution. A principle consideration is the degree to which social behavior is acquired through emulation of those perceived to have greater authority.
- People are multi-faceted; public and private conduct can be incongruent. The priest also can be a pedophile. The nice gentleman talk show host can also be naked when unwitting staff arrive to file or take dictation. The civil-rights icon, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, can also be guilty of sexual assault. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can actually coexist.
- An entire gender of human beings can be treated with disrespect and a dangerous situational ethic can exist in countless organizational cultures, where a code of silence is maintained by everybody. Consider the forces that silence victims — and what about those who know of the abuse but say nothing?
- If the disrespected gender is miraculously incited to exceed boundaries that previously discouraged truth and consideration, the momentum can become so assumptive that context goes unexamined, and accusations are assumed to be credible if they seem credible — suddenly ending careers, changing lives and relationships, and adding to the momentum. While this process may be unfair and massively emotional, the conclusions actually may be fair and just. Or, not.
- Organizational culture is a reflection of the CEO and others in highest authority. Few CEOs appear to effectively understand this. Few boards and senior leaders appear to effectively understand that the organizational culture is the engine for performance, nor do they have expertise and insight into the numerous dimensions and strategies for culture that manifests human brilliance close to its full potential. When profits are deemed acceptable, it appears that few boards or CEOs powerfully invest in strengthening the brilliance and agility of the culture. It is safe to say that those on the continuum of power are quite unsophisticated about organizational culture, but assume authority on this topic, too.
- By various respected studies (e.g., Gallup), the American workforce may be 70% disengaged, and the analysis is that the disengagement in culture is a leadership problem resulting from the lack of consensus that the organizational purpose is worthy, and from general fear and apprehension in the culture.
- It is probably unjust and unfair to assess behavior without considering context. But context about behavior between two or more people is always subjective for some. Today, we are dealing with it as objective, wishing to apply zero tolerance. Is there a rush to judgment? Is there an impatience with process? If the end seems to justify the means, does a proper end serve to justify a lack of thoughtful means?
- The CEO of a major media company fires the company’s biggest talent, and the CEO declares that in over 20-years there had been no complaints of sexual impropriety about the talent. Is that that? What exists in the culture led by that CEO, embraced by that board of directors, that obstructed truth-telling by women? Would the commanding officer of a US Navy ship that goes aground expect ignorance about the sandbar will enable him or her to keep command? Is ignorance an excuse for those in-charge?
It is very complicated! Dealing appropriately with sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by people in high positions of authority are related works in progress today, with many moving parts that will continue to move for quite some time to come. Consider leadership qualities that effectively resolve disrespect and authority dysfunction.
With empathy do you mirror and model the frightened, the offended and the hopeless? What tone and volume modulates your crucial conversations? What discerning wisdom do you offer, free of sarcasm, cynicism and deflection? What powers of healing appear in your personal portfolio today? Are you fostering cultures of sustainable human brilliance and deeds of peace?[This article was previously published with the title: “Our desperate need for a deed of peace.”]