Power, Management, and Harassment: It’s a Cultural Problem

You may think the #MeToo tag doesn't have anything to do with product development. Not so fast. When people behave badly (more often it's men than women, but it can be either), the people suffer. When the people suffer, the product suffers. It suffers in development and it suffers in release.

The issue is this: Behavior like this (sexual harrassment and discrimination) is an abuse of power. It is a cultural problem in society and in our organizations.

Edgar Schein defines culture as what you can discuss, how people treat each other and what you reward. (See Organizational Culture and Leadership.)

When a culture allows discrimination, harassment, or abuse, the organization says, “We won't talk about that.” When people treat each other according to their role in the hierarchy, they say, “It's okay to treat other people badly.” When the managers in charge get promoted, the organization actually rewards that behavior.

Abuse of power is a cultural problem.

You have heard this quote:

“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.” –Gruenert and Whitaker

In the case of Weinstein and Company, the worst behavior was quite bad. I have worked in places where it was almost as bad.

Some people in the agile community say, “We don't have this problem.” Not so fast.  I have coached and mentored other women in the past two or three years about how to deal with behavior based on this power dynamic.

When managers (anyone, but I mostly see this in managers) abuse their title-based power, they destroy the necessary social contract and the working behaviors that create a reasonable workplace.

In any workplace, abusing power becomes a disaster. In a supposedly agile environment, the people stop collaborating. Often, they stop the transparency around the work. They stop the agile behaviors that create value, and delivery. A team that was producing no longer produces. And, no one “knows” why.

A team sees the effects immediately: people withdraw from collaboration and certain social situations. Teams may not know what happened, but they know something occurred. And, the people in the situation know exactly what happened.

How do you manage an abuse of power?

Expose it. Don't reinforce it.

I see too much hiring that reinforces power abuse in an organization. Here are some of my hiring suggestions:

Also, consider reading Hiring Geeks That Fit because many of the ideas in there will help you assess your culture and your hiring practices. Read Behind Closed Doors to see what great managers do.

In addition, I have suggestions about feedback and, women in management, one-on-ones and how to build career ladders and “manage” performance so people can learn to build their interpersonal skills.

Here's the most important thing you can do: Expose the power dynamic and anyone's behavior that's not appropriate. Be a whistleblower on the abuse of power.

I actually mentioned some discrimination on the Shift-M Podcast Posted About Hiring. (We recorded it before the scandal broke.)

My points:

  • Sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse is about power. It's not about hormones. It's about power.
  • The organization's culture reinforces this abuse of power.
  • Decide what you want to reinforce in your culture and expose the abuses.
  • Creating a culture that enhances collaboration will also enhance your product development. Reinforcing a culture of abuse makes it more difficult to create and release great products.

Oh, and #MeToo.  I don't know a working woman who has not dealt with an abuse of power. My first experience was when I was 19. It has continued every decade of my working career. It's time to stop.

8 Replies to “Power, Management, and Harassment: It’s a Cultural Problem”

  1. Great Article – a note though. The last person I worked for who abused power was a woman and she primarily used it against women. Her hostility was well known yet she too was repeatedly rewarded/promoted. I never could understand the reasoning. Eventually these houses of cards to fall – but they hurt so many as they are being built.

    1. Yes, I have seen women abuse power, too. There’s something called the Queen Bee Syndrome. I often see this when women perceive scarcity for promotions, rewards, etc.

      The piece I don’t understand is why companies reward this behavior. I just don’t get it.

  2. Johanna, thank you very much for speaking about this. This happens on the production floor of every software factory that I have had “privilege” of working in. Nobody talks about that. At least not until someone brings it up first. And no NDA is needed, people are just ashamed to talk about their bad experiences.
    After agile Prague I have spoken to many new developers from different organizations and I’m amazed how once I bring up my work being sabotaged in response I get to hear a similar story.
    The question is – why when one encounters any kind of abuse at work there’s nobody to talk to about that?


    1. Robert, here’s my opinion: too many managers do not realize their job is to create the culture in which everyone can do a great job. These managers don’t realize they can take power to change for the good. In an ideal world, you would work with your manager. If your manager was the problem, you would have someone to talk to.

      However, we work in the real world. We need to build relationships with our peers, with others across the organization. We need to discover our strength, our ability to discuss those difficult issues that exist. We need to discover our own power. (The fact that people refer to product development as a “software factory” is part of the problem. Knowledge work is innovation and learning, not manufacturing.)

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