business.com receives compensation from some of the companies listed on this page. Advertising Disclosure

Home

Why Does Power Abuse Persist?

Petrina Coventry
Updated Sep 20, 2022

It's important to understand the psychology of abusers and their supporters.

Workplace bullying is all too common, and it leaves a negative impact on both the victim as well as the company’s culture. Power abuse fosters an environment of toxicity, and may decrease employee morale. Here’s a look at the psychology behind power abuse – and why it persists.

What is abuse of power?

Power abuse is an issue that most of us have experienced at some time, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not. Controversy and debate around this subject are constantly gaining ground and interest, especially in the workplace.

Abusive people gain and maintain power over their victim with controlling or coercive behavior, and proceed to subject that person to psychological, physical, sexual or financial abuse. As we have seen from the media coverage of high-profile cases, this abuse can go on for years, is often ignored, and may be encouraged by those surrounding the abuser. Not taking action to stop the abuse is a form of abuse itself.

Understanding the psychology behind an abuser’s actions can help explain – but not excuse – why the abuse may continue and possibly increase.

Individuals who are abusive or have narcissistic tendencies may have a narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. Research from the Cleveland Clinic shows that 5% of the population has NPD. Narcissists have a need to make themselves look impressive, crave admiration and power, lack empathy, and often act arrogantly. When narcissistic behavior exists, you can see an increase in power abuse cases.

In the workplace, people may abuse their power in a number of ways: by choosing to hire (or not hire) based on bias or prejudice; by creating an uncomfortable working environment; and by misusing their power in disciplinary situations. Acts of narcissism and abuse of power can create deeply dangerous and uncomfortable working conditions for employees.

Did you know?Did you know? An example of abuse of power includes choosing to hire or not hire based on a bias or prejudice.

Why does abuse of power persist?

Victims of abuse are often stressed and confused about their situation. This confusion can block the person’s confidence to report the issue, or they ignore it, thinking it will go away in time. It doesn’t.

Often the channel to address the issue leads to the legal department, but law firms can be a breeding ground for bully protection. Those with money or positions of power often have greater access to lawyers. They can quickly exhaust the victim’s ability to afford legal support, and they know it. The power abusers are often in a position to control the legal outcomes.

As a result, these cases often go unreported, undetected and unchallenged, because the victim feels that the threat of action could be worse than the original form of abuse. This creates a vicious cycle in which the perpetrators feel that getting away with the crime empowers them to continue their abusive behavior.

Silent supporters and ‘group shun’

 Abusers like to have support for their cause. Their social skills and positions of power can compound the issues by enrolling others in “group shun.” The group – made up of the abuser and those who are weak enough to fear that if they don’t join in, they will be the next victims – acts as a pack to ostracize an individual. Bullies often seek to remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy and cowardice. They influence others to join in so that if they are detected, they can avoid blame by deflecting their behavior onto others in the group.

This issue is rarely addressed in bullying training programs in any depth. Often the individuals involved are not entirely sure what is going on. Group shun can creep over time, and because of its stealth nature, it can be hard to describe to others so that they can recognize it. The targeted individual may become paranoid or delusional, leading to a double whammy of victimization where they feel everyone else has deserted them. When you see colleagues being shunned and ostracized by peers and organizational leaders, do not enable the abuser with your silence or tacit support. The silent witness is as guilty as the perpetrators, allowing the psychological torture to continue. The enablers are perpetrators by acting as accomplices. Cowardice and lack of courage remain the motivation for this inaction. Remember, if the vicious cycle is not stopped, you may become the next victim.

How does abuse of power happen in the workplace?

In a working environment, the abuse of power against staff can manifest in various harmful ways. Abuse usually stems from an individual who holds power (i.e., a boss, executive or manager). These individuals can apply pressure and bully or coerce their employees into difficult or stressful situations. Those who have been with the company for a short period, have an associate-level title, or are from a marginalized background can experience further acts of harassment and discomfort from their superiors. Those who abuse their power may surround themselves with other individuals of power or people prone to agreeing with them, lowering the chance for helpful feedback and behavior callouts.

Power-based harassment can include: threatening an employee by telling them they could lose their job, shifting blame, putting their own interests before the betterment of the staff and company, and other acts of harm. When a person with workplace privileges misuses their power, they can humiliate, threaten or mock staff members. These types of abusive acts of power can further cause work-based trauma.

Staff experiencing abuse of power may be stressed, put under immense pressure, and feel increased distrust toward their job or work colleagues. Overall, abuse of power can lower employee morale, increase employee turnover, and decrease productivity. When companies do not put their employees’ well-being and mental health first, it not only detrimentally hurts staff but also the company as a whole. To avoid employee burnout and mental health trauma, consider how people with power in a workplace can best advocate for those who may be experiencing power abuse.

TipTip: Prioritize your employees’ mental health and well-being by listening to their feedback – especially those who may be experiencing a supervisor’s abuse of power.

How can you stop abuse of power in the workplace?

Stopping power abuse and bullying in the workplace means implementing education and enacting support systems at an organizational level. Simply having a policy in place doesn’t always help – where policies do exist, they are often ignored or ineffective. 

Consider the following tools to stop the abuse of power in the workplace:

  • Intervention levels. Have operations systems that allow space for employees to discuss grievances or abuses with executive staff or HR.
  • Code of conduct. Develop manuals and handbooks alongside an HR team to best protect the rights, boundaries and health of employees.
  • Disciplinary measures. When preventative solutions are no longer protecting employees, have steps in place to stop and confront workplace abuses.
  • Support systems. Create spaces where employees are able to safely share their experiences. This can be in the form of affinity groups, human resources, staff surveys and more.

TipTip: Stop bullying and abuse of power at an organizational level by holding training, performing interventions and enacting disciplinary measures.

When regulation fails, we need to revert to character, and herein lies the ethical challenge. Character is borne out of moral virtue, courage and honor. In this case, we need to ensure we are building employees of character – those who have the courage to stand up for others, and themselves, and courage from organizations to reward those who do.

The culture of an organization must have systems in place to encourage employees to be aware of behaviors or influences that may not be acceptable, as well as speak up about those behaviors. Organizational leaders, regulators and business schools need to step up, enforce policies, be aware, and understand the implications and risks of what is going on in their own organizations and the liabilities that they face. Individuals need to show courage not to participate, to call out bad behavior, and when faced with the situation themselves, have the language to articulate what is going on clearly.

Character is an undertaught and underrepresented ethical trait in our executive education programs. It is the foundation of good leadership. Bring back character, and the need for articles like this may diminish.

Additional reporting by Sean Peek.

Image Credit:

Pra Chid/Shutterstock

Petrina Coventry
Professor Coventry has spent over twenty years working in Asia, the United States and Europe performing global leadership roles with The General Electric Company, The Coca Cola Company and Proctor and Gamble. She has worked across multiple industry sectors including agriculture, energy, oil and gas, education, fast moving consumer goods and financial services.