What’s the price of abuse of power?

A traditional Swedish Christmas buffet including pickled herring in mustard sauce, baked ham, Rice á la Malta for dessert and how about a little pornography to top it all off? I had a boss who thought this was an appropriate way to surprise his staff before the Christmas holidays. He chose to actively mix his sexual fantasies into his role as leader – a despicable type of harassment. I wonder, in addition to women’s suffering – how much does our companies and organizations lose financially when so-called “leaders” choose to prioritise their need to abuse power over the needs of colleagues and what’s best for the business.

 I was a project leader at an advertising agency in Stockholm for a few years in the early 1990s. The company was cutting edge, up and coming, and attracted major customers and knowledgeable professionals. Soon I started sensing an implicit expectation that I should be grateful to be part of such an exclusive team. However, the atmosphere in the office evoked entirely different feelings. The agency’s three founders were the main ringleaders behind a culture characterised by backstabbing, a culture which then spread throughout the rest of the company like smog. It was as though everyone was divided into two groups, where some were in and the others were out, and a lot of time was spent trying to position yourself to avoid being excluded or the target of harassment. I felt insecure, to say the least.

And then it was time for the Christmas party. Someone had come up with the idea to divide the company into teams who then would surprise each other with different activities during the day. We had a a Christmas buffet at Ulriksdals Inn and went bowling. The company’s CEO and his group were responsible for the evening’s final activity and we went to downtown Stockholm. The CEO led the way down to a basement club. Many of us were a bit tipsy by then, and someone joked that if anyone would slip on the stairs, we would crash through the entrance like a giant snowball of PR people. When we entered we immediately met half naked women in extreme high heels. Was this for real? Were they really planning to end our Christmas office party at a strip club?

I peeked into the room and saw well-dressed men in front of a stage. They laughed and raised their glasses amongst naked women. I froze, hesitating while several of my colleagues entered. I had absolutely no desire to stay. But there was suddenly this fear that my silent protest would have consequences. How would I be treated if I turned around and left, refusing to play along? Would I be excluded or maybe even harassed back at the office? I chose to leave, but that was all I dared to do. To refuse and protest was completely out of the question.

Twenty-six years have come and gone since that Christmas party, but it still makes me feel uncomfortable.. That’s how powerful the abuse of power can be. After this latest tidal wave of women witnessing to more extreme acts than my own experience, I believe – unfortunately – that we are just seeing the tip of a devastating iceberg. Because under the tidal wave hides an endless variety of power abuse that affects women in their careers every single day. How they feel, performance and make decisions. What is the price of this abuse?

In addition to the suffering it creates, it’s about time that company management starts calculating the cost of allowing men to choose to exercise abuse of power instead of doing what’s best for the business. Believe me, oppressing your colleagues, costumers and suppliers is always bad for business. In every aspect. Period.

I now challenge representatives from the business world to have a serious discussion about this. About men abusing power, about women being affected and how it impacts our businesses. Let’s be courageous and place the shame where it belongs. Let’s purge this poisonous attitude towards women along with all warped power structures. Once and for all. We all win when we prioritise good, courageous leaders – from the individual and company level up to and throughout our entire planet.