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Updated Jun 14, 2024

Why Does Power Abuse Persist?

Take a closer look at the psychology behind power abuse in the workplace, signs of power abuse and how to stop it.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Many professionals have witnessed power abuse in their careers, with 30 percent of United States employees reporting that they experienced bullying on the job, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. Power abuse is all too common and it leaves a negative impact on both the victim as well as the workplace’s culture. It fosters an environment of toxicity and may decrease employee morale. 

Here’s a look at the psychology behind power abuse, how to detect it in the workplace 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 gaining ground and interest constantly, especially in the workplace.

Abuse usually stems from someone who holds power, such as a boss, executive or manager. These individuals can apply pressure and bully their employees into difficult or stressful situations. Those who abuse their power may also surround themselves with other powerful people or sycophants, lowering the chance for helpful feedback and behavior callouts.

Did You Know?Did you know
Abuse of power in the workplace may entail harassment and discrimination, which could place your business in hot water legally. Check out the business legal terms you need to know so your company is prepared.

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.

Examples of power abuse in the workplace

In the workplace, people may abuse their power in several ways:

  • Intentionally embarrassing others: A leader who uses any excuse to embarrass others is inappropriately exercising their power. This could include sharing embarrassing stories about the targeted individual, mocking their mistakes or making negative personal remarks against them.
  • Being aggressive: Whether it’s under the guise of a joke or chalked up to a bad day, aggressive behaviors are forms of power abuse. These behaviors include shouting at employees, shifting blame, threatening job loss or other harmful actions.
  • Seeking vengeance: While it may seem harmless from the outside, abusers often seek revenge through subtle approaches, such as “pranking” victims or messing with their belongings. They may also take a more blatant approach, acting out by conspiring against them or intentionally making them feel upset or hurt.
  • Manipulation: Abusers love to exploit peer pressure to coerce others’ support. Aware of the influence they hold, abusers twist situations and manipulate others to put their own interests before the betterment of the staff and company.
Bottom LineBottom line
Detecting power abuse in real life isn’t always clear. It can often take shape subtly, leading staff members to feel humiliated, threatened or mocked. If unaddressed, a misuse of power can lead to experiences of work-based trauma.

Why does abuse of power persist?

While it’s widely recognized, power abuse continues to be a prevalent issue in many workplaces for various reasons.

A lack of confidence or knowledge to report

People don’t always realize they are the subject of power abuse. Sometimes, they assume their experiences are normal and not worth reporting. Other times, there isn’t a clear path to get help. Depending on who the perpetrator is, employees may not feel confident enough to report the problem or they may doubt their ability to “prove” it.

Witnesses, too, often hesitate to get involved when they recognize power abuse in the workplace. Many times, they feel uncertain about their role in the matter or assume that they are misunderstanding the situation, letting the issue persist.

The fear of consequences 

Power abuse victims — and witnesses — are often deterred from coming forward due to the potential repercussions, such as legal issues, fear of being wrongfully blamed or job loss. Especially in instances where victims cannot report the situation anonymously, they may fear workplace ostracization and choose to endure the mistreatment instead. Financial responsibilities can also impact one’s ability to fight back as those with money or positions of power often have greater access to lawyers. 

Victims may also worry that nothing will be done to help them, should they report the situation. If their claims aren’t taken seriously, a lack of consequences could empower the abuser further, leading to worse mistreatment than they’ve experienced already.

An abuser’s psychological predisposition

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 (NPD). Research from the Cleveland Clinic shows that less than 5 percent of the population has NPD. Narcissists 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.

Silent supporters and ‘group shun’

Abusers like to have support for their cause. Often, they can garner this support from subordinates and those in the workplace who are weak enough to fear that if they don’t join in, they will be the next victims. This approach can lead to a “group shun,” where an individual is gradually ostracized by others in the workplace. This slow, subtle tactic is hard for those on the outside to recognize, leading targeted individuals to feel isolated. Over time, this isolation can result in feelings of paranoia or delusion.

The group shun enables the abuser and helps them avoid blame. It pushes individuals to become accomplices, whether or not they agree, to avoid rocking the boat and protect their jobs.

What are the effects of power abuse in the workplace?

In a working environment, the abuse of power against staff can manifest in various harmful ways.

Decreased productivity and job performance

Employees are less likely to be productive and engaged in the workplace when they’re constantly anxious over how their bully will treat them. Power abuse can greatly impact an employee’s mental energy, leading to a loss of time and motivation to get work done — or to do it well. It can also result in more absenteeism and overall disconnection from the workplace as victims find themselves feeling isolated or lacking support from those around them.

Reduced mental and physical well-being

Power abuse can create a hostile work environment where employees are uncomfortable expressing themselves or speaking out when they witness wrongdoings. This lack of open communication can lead to severe stress and reduce employees’ physical and mental well-being.

Over time, this stressful environment can take a toll on an employee’s health. Victims may begin to experience medical issues including mental health challenges, weakened immune systems and sleep disorders — all of which can lead to increased healthcare costs for employers.

Increased turnover

Reduced morale and a lack of employee well-being due to power abuse can drive many to search for new jobs. Especially in situations where the abuser stays in power, people may choose to quit rather than continue to endure the abuse, aware that the company isn’t implementing meaningful changes.

On top of potentially losing key employees, this increased turnover comes with associated costs that can negatively affect a business’s profitability. Companies face financial burdens from offboarding and onboarding expenses when hiring replacements for departing staff.

Legal ramifications

Depending on the situation at hand, a wrongfully treated employee may choose to sue. Pursuing legal action will depend on what happened and whether the company did anything about it. For example, an employer cannot be blamed for the abuse if they weren’t made aware of the situation. However, an employee may take legal action if they can prove the company ignored their situation and that the abuse targeted a protected characteristic, including disabilities, sexual orientation or race.

FYIDid you know
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 conflicts, grievances or abuses with executive staff or human resources (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 can safely share their experiences. This can be in the form of affinity groups, HR, staff surveys and more.
TipBottom line
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 dare 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.

Petrina Coventry contributed to this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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