One of the ideas I have become consumed with over the last 5 years is the concept of power. How we wield it, how it influences the interactions we have with others and how it shapes our perception of ourselves.
I have been lucky to experience power imbalances in many spheres of my life, in my work as a manager in a media business, in my career as a writer and my time as an independent entrepreneur running a small business. I have often had enough detachment in those situations to experiment with many approaches to realigning power imbalances in those relationships and coming to a place of equitable partnerships expressed by what I consider as ‘authority’.
An equitable partnership is a position where a person willingly submits to the authority of another person based on that person’s experience, achievements or manifesto. This transfer of autonomy happens with the explicit agreement that the person who receives this transfer will not misuse it and will relinquish it without pushback when the giver asks. This transfer of autonomy is also dependent on the receiver maintaining the elements (experience, achievements, manifesto) that made them eligible in the first place.
GOSSIP IS A GOOD THING
There are some situations that require people to have and wield power. Especially in work environments where a lack of resources or time might require decisive decision making. But access to power eventually becomes inadequate if the leader who is given power does not work to become an authority figure to the people they lead.
As a person in power (I managed teams from 2015 – 2020), I learned very quickly that simply being a person with power over others skewers your relationship with them. This happens whether a person rises through the ranks to a management position or is transplanted from another organization for their unique skill sets or to solve a particular problem. The fact that you are responsible for the performance and livelihood of others alienates you from them.
Simply asking your subordinates to speak honestly with you about a problem that is disrupting productivity or convening meetings to resolve what you perceive as friction does not work and can further alienate you from the people you are trying to connect with. I have had to find other ways to gauge if I am being a leader who rallies his team and creates an environment where they can thrive, or if I am a despot misusing my power. The single most consistent tool I have discovered is the ‘gossip’ tool.
In an ideal workspace where communication lines are clear and open, there would be no gossip. Or at least, there would be no gossip about you, the leader of this unit, team or organization. People would simply approach you with questions, compliments, concerns and grievances, convinced that they would at least be heard fairly, and their input acknowledged, even if it is not acted on immediately or in the near future. To achieve that, as a leader, you would have to clearly communicate the collective goal of the unit, show your contributions to the goal and support each team member in the manner that best suits their needs as they work towards your collective goal. It is difficult work, which is why most people don’t do it.
As a leader coming into power, gossip is good. Gossip is an early warning system that tells you the people you lead have grievances against you, or lack sufficient communication about you and your goals. It also suggests you have not created an environment where they can simply approach you to discuss their grievances or seek clarity when they lack information about your decisions or your choices. Gossip also tells you that the people you lead believe you are redeemable, and that the work/social environment you have created might have weakened communication lines but it is not yet toxic. It can still be fixed.
When you strip gossip of its negative connotations and the questionable morality of the people who engage in it, gossip is just data, skewed by bias and a lack of adequate information, but data nonetheless. Do with it as you will.
What can however not be fixed, is an office where there is no open communication and no gossip. What this suggests, is that going beyond being a poor communicator, a leader has rewarded sycophancy and encouraged a culture of self-preservation through nepotism. An office, club or organization where people don’t speak openly and do not gossip can only exist if people have been punished for speaking up publicly and had their confidences betrayed after speaking out privately. The distrust has grown beyond the leader and the team and infected team members themselves. Situations that deteriorate to this point are rarely redeemable. Once self-preservation sets in, the team begins to orchestrate their exits, each person emboldened by the successful exit of the person before them. Only a purge of leadership can save that ship.
In contrast, a person with authority is conferred power by the group, given the mandate to make decisions on their behalf. A person with authority is often ‘endorsed’ for a position of power through nominations for roles, or overwhelming support when they indicate interest in a particular position.
A person who is thrust into a position of power must also seek to be eventually authorized by the people they lead.
A LITTLE MATTER OF INAPPROPRIATENESS
People who have come into power, either through personal effort or through an executive decision struggle with growing into authority. They do so, because while power demands obedience and dangles swift retaliation as a consequence for dissent and disobedience, authority must be earned and consented to, sometimes on a daily basis.
People say wielding power is difficult, but I find that this is not true. What is difficult is relinquishing power once you have wielded it and experienced its addictive duality; power functions as a magical sword to cut through bureaucracy and barriers and reach conclusions and resolutions more quickly and a massive shield to protect yourself from consequences. But bureaucracy and consequences exist to keep relationships professional and personal equitable, and when power is used in this way it is often at the expense of others.
With authority, a consensus must always be reached, even when the decision is being made is the wrong one. A person in authority is constantly reminded that their power over the group is not absolute and commits to the work of repeatedly proving themselves. In return for seeking the consent of the group, the person with authority is affirmed, supported and forgiven when they make mistakes.
Power is alienating. The alienation worsens as a person rises up the ranks of an organization or a social group or even gains more power in a romantic relationship. Along with alienation, usually from people the leader considered peers, friends or romantic partners, a leader must also contend with othering. Their actions suddenly have a larger repercussive effect, things they say and do are scrutinized more closely. They are held accountable in differing ways by their subordinates and the people who put them in power (e.g a CEO or a pastor). The effect of this can be very disorienting for someone who didn’t have the preparation and self-appraisal that is baked into the process of coming into authority.
A lot of powerful people desperately want to be liked. It is a universal need that is amplified by the othering that happens when a person is made a leader. Language and actions that were once accessible to them are now offensive, or worse coercive. There is no explicit guide that outlines what changes when a person is made a leader and what doesn’t. Many leaders, especially the ones who are thrust into power, must navigate this minefield on their own and discover their new boundaries through trial and error. Many powerful people turn to inappropriateness as a way to return some normalcy to their lives.
WHAT THEN IS INAPPROPRIATENESS?
It is any situation/interaction where a person in a relationship with a power imbalance uses that imbalance to their advantage, but stops just shy of outright misuse of power, relying on the knowledge that the disadvantaged person would rather avoid conflict by allowing the inappropriate behaviour run its course than protest it and face backlash or ostracization.
A good example of this, would be a parent enforcing communal ‘morning prayers’ when they know one of their children is agnostic. The agnostic child is put in a situation where they must pretend to be religious or be positioned as rebellious and someone who refuses to conform, as their non-conformity as presented to the group as not a personal choice but an act of dissent against the parental figure.
Another example would be a team leader in a work organization insisting that rather than a neutral activity that all team members can enjoy, his team bonding activity will be a bar crawl or a trip to a strip club when they know some of their team members are deeply religious. By telegraphing their choice of event as harmless, they force their religious team members into a dilemma where they either avoid bonding events and miss out on closer relationships with their co-workers, or join these bar crawls where they are either unable to fully participate and thus must endure awkward interactions with their co-workers or are pressured to conform against their beliefs.
People in positions of power are inappropriate with other people because they refuse to acknowledge that the difference between a leader and despot is how much personal and public accountability a person in a position of power welcomes in response to their actions. A person of power knows that inappropriate behaviour with a peer or a superior will be swiftly questioned and punished unless it is consented to, and so they avoid situations where the imbalance of power does not work in their favour. It is for this reason that exposed predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby could have mutually fulfilling, wholly appropriate relationships with hundreds of powerful white men while also being sexually and emotionally inappropriate with several dozen women.
When a powerful person refuses to account for the passive ways in which they misuse their power, they refuse to acknowledge that an imbalance of power can change the appropriateness of an interaction or a conversation. They know that they must publicly give up power (resign from public office) to indulge their desires or slake their loneliness (have that affair, take that trip during a pandemic) but they do not, because the reason they have access to the recipient of their inappropriateness in the first place is their proximity to power. They refuse to acknowledge that inappropriateness has a price, one that is eventually paid in the short term by the person who wields less power in the relationship/interaction.
When people in power are inappropriate, e.g texting a contractor that was introduced to them for a specific task and expanding that relationship beyond that task when they know the contractor must be polite because of how they were initially introduced, they must give up their assumed position of authority to engage in this inappropriateness and essentially relinquish some of their power over this person. They are comfortable doing this because they know whatever power they relinquish in this relationship pales in comparison to the power they retain in other relationships, power that can be swiftly redirected and used to retaliate against or silence the recipient of their inappropriateness when the situation no longer favours them.
But once inappropriateness has been introduced to a relationship, power can only delay the eventual consequence of that action, but it cannot suspend it. Unfortunately, it is impossible for a person who has been inappropriate to a colleague, partner or subordinate to silence the recipient of their actions alone. They have already relinquished a significant portion of their power to the other person and can no longer simply command the person to be quiet or remove them. To hide their inappropriate behaviour, they must co-opt others, wielding their power in other relationships to buy silence, to coerce and incentivize others to participate in silencing their victim.
A side effect of co-opting others in inappropriate behaviour as a leader, is that colleagues interpret this as permission to be inappropriate to each other. You relinquish power to your accomplices and lose the authority to call them to order when they indulge in their own smaller but no less damaging acts of inappropriateness. When a leader at a team bonding event shares an inappropriate story about himself, for example about his sex life, he co-opts silence from his subordinates, and creates a toxic environment that pressures them to share something inappropriate about themselves in return to ‘balance out’ the equation. If they do not, they are branded as ‘difficult’ and ostracized.
Other times, leaders encourage inappropriateness in relationships between their subordinates as a preemptive way to excuse their own as yet hidden inappropriate actions. Eventually, a single incidence of inappropriateness will grow into such a web of co-option and accomplices that the powerful person at the centre will eventually be forced to misuse their power or relinquish it altogether, e.g punishing an employee for sharing his inappropriate story from that bonding event to ‘outsiders’, or dealing with the public humiliation that comes from the story getting out.
The longer power is used to silence or delay the consequences of inappropriateness, the worse the consequences become when the dam eventually breaks and the true nature of the person in power is revealed.
This is why Harvey Weinsten and Bill Cosby’s fall from power was so thorough. They had spent decades using inappropriateness to sate their personal desire, co-opting accomplices from unrelated relationships and requiring larger and larger does of inappropriateness to keep that initial act a secret. The web grew so wide, both men were eventually forced to escalate into misuse of power. It might take some time but inappropriateness will always end in shame, disgrace and scandal.
WHAT HOPE DO WE HAVE THEN?
No one is above inappropriateness. Our society is built on misuses of power and even well-intentioned people can underestimate their impact on others in relationships they perceive as wholly equitable. We will all make mistakes, but what we cannot escape, is the consequences of our mistakes.
One concept we must embrace in our professional and personal relationships is voluntary resignation. Nigerians are groomed to latch onto power and desperately defend their access to this power, even when power no longer serves them. This is why, otherwise upstanding journalists and technocrats, enter into Nigerian politics and in a few short years, engage in and defend acts of injustice and cruelty that only years before they would have shunned. This refusal to relinquish power is not exclusive to politicians, we see it in startups, at government ministries, in daily interactions between Uber drivers and passengers. Every time a Nigerian is given even the slightest bit of power, they engage in acts of inappropriateness to extend that power, which eventually leads to them losing that power in disgraceful ways. Across more established societies with more powerful social structures, voluntary resignations give people who have been inappropriate in positions of power a chance at redemption, in exchange for a temporary loss of status.
A classic example of a Nigerian who relinquished power through voluntary resignation and in some ways redeemed his image is former President Goodluck Jonathan. There is a lot to be said for his leadership style, and for his achievements, but one thing that is not in contention is his handling of the 2015 elections. His sportsmanship, his willingness to relinquish power at the tipping point where his actions would have extended beyond inappropriateness into an outright misuse of power redeemed his public image and has allowed him reenter many conversations where he would have otherwise been ostracized. There are many on-going legitimate discussions about the enduring consequences of his inappropriateness as president, but his decision to relinquish power when it mattered most was the single most important thing he could have done for his legacy as a president.
It doesn’t matter how far into an act of inappropriateness you have gone, once you recognize the signs of inappropriateness using tools like the ‘gossip’ tool, you have a chance to course-correct and save yourself from eventual, inevitable disgrace.
The consequences will be dire, but it is never, ever too late.