Using Fear to Gain Power

There are two general models for organizational culture: one is based on fear, intimidation, and violence; the other is based on love, empathy, and support. The model that is most common, that causes so much dysfunction, and that undermines the profit theology, is the fear model.

Fear was the tool used by Harvey Weinstein to manipulate others. In this model, someone in power consciously or unconsciously creates fear in others. This could be through acts like sarcasm, shaming, bullying, physical intimidation, actual physical or sexual violence, and blacklisting. An event like this does not have to occur often for people to develop a fear of the possibility of it occurring in the future. A leader who targets only one person even one time can create fear among witnesses and those who hear about it through the grapevine. It’s not even necessary that a leader be the actor if another engages in these behaviors and a leader doesn’t stop it.

Over time, the fear becomes normalized such that people can forget it ever was different, and it can outlive whoever was the initial seed. Thus one’s ability to recognize the wrongness of the behavior disappears and it becomes accepted. People then act unconscious of their own fear. Anyone joining such an organization might learn the behaviors only as the unwritten rules of the culture, unaware even that their roots were in real fear-based events. The fear culture becomes self-perpetuating as newcomers strive to fit in.

As in a totalitarian regime, it is the awareness of what could happen that keeps everyone in fear and working to avoid doing anything that would put oneself at risk. The existence of gulags and concentration camps, and the knowledge that the reasons for being sent there could be arbitrary and capricious, were enough to encourage everyone to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and willing to engage in or overlook otherwise inhumane or delusional behavior.

So too it is in the workplace. One angry tirade, “eviscerating email,” sarcastic remark, or other private or public criticism, let alone something worse, is all it takes for an employee to decide that they will do what they can to avoid a repeat. Human Resources employees can be seen as the gulag guards if they are believed to be untrustworthy, e.g., reporting back to one’s supervisor about a private conversation or inquiry made to HR, or the agents of mysterious disappearances, i.e., when an employee suddenly and without explanation stops showing up at work.

Harvey Weinstein’s fear-mongering was more overtly tied to survival, as he threatened careers. In an employer-employee relationship, fear also can arise around the content of a performance review, the size of a bonus, the opportunity to do interesting work, promotions and pay increases, and the threat of termination.

Some will argue that being able to withstand intimidating behavior is about not being “soft.” That’s the argument of a bully, and a red flag that indicates someone to avoid. Which is not to say to judge that person; they might be the unaware victim of intimidation themselves and unconsciously see it as the only way to recover the power taken from them by whoever was their victimizer. For these behaviors are ultimately about taking another’s power to compensate for one’s own sense of disempowerment. It’s a habit developed to fill an internal power void. The original cause of the void might be long gone but the personal power vacuum remains. There are many examples of these people in power, from Harvey Weinstein to Anna Wintour to Donald Trump.

Having empathy for the abuser does not mean tolerating their behavior. That is a form of giving away one’s power. Part of what the victim learns—and the Weinstein victims fit this description—is that silence means acquiescence, even if there is a financial settlement, and that the victimizer has still won; completely separate from his ability to continue the behaviors, he has still taken your power by silencing you. Regardless of any calling you might feel to fight on behalf of someone else, as Rose McGowan is doing, your first obligation is to yourself and your own self-worth and self-respect.

Harvey, in paying people for their silence, only extended into a new realm the deal that already exists in every employer-employee relationship: buying an individual’s acquiescence in exchange for money. Wells Fargo is an obvious and egregious example of a case where this power was abused when conditions were created that encouraged employees to open fake checking accounts for unwitting customers. More than 5,000 people were fired as a result of the checking accounts scandal at Wells, though hardly any of those were responsible for creating the unethical conditions and, in any case, were punished only after the facts became public. In other words, management nearly got away with the abuse, then when caught, nearly got away with blaming the more than 5,000 people they fired for doing what management expected them to do—even though everyone knew opening fake accounts was wrong.

From an organizational success perspective, the most pernicious effect of a fear culture is how it limits self-expression to avoid behaviors and actions that might inspire verbal or physical harassment or otherwise draw unwanted attention. The threat of attack drives self-censorship that denies the organization the benefit of every employee’s best ideas and contributions. Leadership hears more of what employees think it wants to hear, divorced from whether that is actually best for the organization or not. They stop contributing and innovating, which in this era of “disruption” and ever faster change creates real risk to the survival of the organization.

Individuals who self-censor can be further harmed because they often slowly withdraw into themselves until one day they realize, or those who love them realize, they are no longer the same person they were before they took “that job.” It’s a sad and avoidable corrosion of the quality of life that affects the individual, their family, and their community—and it’s very tough to recover from.

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