Jobs and the Future of Work

How to detoxify your workplace

The writing is on the wall for workplace cultures that tolerate abuse

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
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In the words of the historian Henry Adams, power is a “tumour that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”, and recent revelations about those sitting at the top of power hierarchies would seem to bear this out.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has shone a light on how Hollywood icons used success as an opportunity to abuse the power it brought them, while the Paradise Papers revealed systemic skullduggery among the global elite.

These cases raise the same fundamental question. Does power corrupt the individual, or are the hierarchies of power rigged to favour those who lack empathy and decency to start with?

According to one study, famously quoted by the author Jon Ronson, as many as 4% of CEOs are psychopathic - four times the level for the general public. The evidence backs up the old truism that power corrupts. It has a natural tendency to isolate individuals, making them feel omnipotent and clouding their ethical judgement, often resulting in socially inappropriate behaviour. Transfer this into an everyday corporate context and one HBR study shows that people in positions of power are three times as likely as those further down the ladder to interrupt others in meetings, raise their voices and say insulting things in the office.

But just to say “power corrupts” is lazy thinking. Power is a nice abstract concept that we can use as a convenient scapegoat for the likes of Weinstein. If things were that simple then there would be nothing we could do; our leaders would always be unempathic borderline psychopaths.

Thankfully, this is far from the case. Power may be abstract, but the way it is deployed is not. It is embedded in the fabric of the systems that surround us, where we work, where we study, where we live, and it is configured through varying hierarchies, some more vertical than others, some more rigid, others more flexible. There is nothing abstract about these systems, and their varying hierarchies are very much our responsibility.

The problem lies in the fact that so many corporate systems are vertical structures in which power itself is the primary goal, and where the non-empathic traits of the more self-assertive, driven and single-minded employees are actually encouraged. These are the hierarchies of power that breed a fear of failure, that stifle creative innovation and demand silence when abuses of power and authority are being committed.

Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and an expert in leadership, explains that: “Rigid structures within a company can frequently lead to increased pressure and stress within the workforce, which can be linked to lower levels of innovation. When we are stressed we experience increased levels of the hormone cortisol in the blood, which diverts blood away from the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. This impairs our ability to access the brain’s higher executive functions which include things like decision-making, flexible thinking and creativity.”

In contrast, empathic environments, where power is more equally, diversely and broadly distributed, are characterised by their flatter and more flexible structures which encourage innovation, creativity and openness, and by their more content and productive workforces.

Research has shown that flattening hierarchies can lead to more content employees and more efficient decision-making. The shoe and clothing company Zappos, for example, became a “holocracy” - an organisation with a self-management approach - in order to encourage it workers to act like entrepreneurs. Similarly, Treehouse, a technology innovation company, eliminated managers after noting that “people had really great ideas but were powerless to implement them.”

The key here lies in the distribution of power. It isn’t enough to create an appearance of a flatter hierarchy if all the power is still in the hands of a tiny minority, or of one single autocrat. Various scandals in Silicon Valley show that in even the most outwardly egalitarian cultures, toxic power structures can still be entrenched.

This is because corporate structures that fail to distribute power result in disenfranchised, unhappy and unproductive employees. Our empathy index shows that more empathic companies are more profitable. In our 2015 Empathy Index, the top 10 companies outperformed the bottom 10 by 50%. Statistics repeatedly show that empathic companies are more profitable. In a poll of 800 managers and employees from across 17 countries, half of the respondents who reported being treated rudely at work said they deliberately decreased their efforts or quality of work in response.

But how can we create workplaces where power (and its corollaries of fear and silence) are no longer dominant? What are the metrics indicating how vertical your power hierarchy is, and how can you go about creating cultures where everyone is empowered, not just those at the top?

The metrics of power are more revealing than the typical employee engagement studies used by many companies, which fail to get under the skin of what is really going on. Indicators of the way power is deployed at an organisation include the amount of time juniors get to speak at meetings. If your senior people are speaking all the time, you are creating a culture of deference, a rigid hierarchy which is counter to a culture of innovation and authenticity.

Another power metric is the extent to which communications are arranged vertically; how many layers need to be got through for an individual to communicate a new idea or challenge a perspective? Are people only allowed to communicate with their managers?’ Find out the percentage of emails which are blind-copied (BCC), as this is an indicator of a climate of insecurity, where employees are keen to cover their backs and avoid blame. The little details can also be enlightening.

Once you have assessed the way that power is deployed in your organisation, you can go about improving it. The aim is for power to be arranged in less of a hierarchical pattern and more as a broad and inclusive network, because whether you see power as corrupting the individual or the system encouraging the advance of those with empathy deficits, too much power invested in too few individuals is bad news.

Business leaders need to focus on three principles that combine to democratise power, embedding ongoing mechanisms to check and control any imbalances that might creep in. The first is to measure the way that power is deployed, using a series of power metrics, the second is to focus on building empathic cultures, with flatter hierarchies that encourage creativity and innovation. The third is to feed empathy back into the system by creating channels through which staff can tell senior management if they feel that power is becoming too concentrated or if the hierarchy is too vertical and rigid.

Flattening that edifice by identifying the metrics of power is key, and the lens of empathy is vital to doing so. It is a curious irony that the way empathy can level the hierarchies of power is by empowering everybody. Power only corrupts when it is concentrated in the hands of an elite few.

Belinda Parmar OBE is the CEO of The Empathy Business and the pioneer behind the world’s first empathy index.

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