Abuse of Power: First on the List of Seven Deadliest Infections Inhabiting Organizations

Abuse of Power: First on the List of Seven Deadliest Infections Inhabiting Organizations

First on the List of Seven Deadliest Infections Inhabiting Organizations

By Charlotte DiBartolomeo, C.E.O. Red Kite Project

When 19th Century English historian, Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he couldn’t have known about the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008. But he undoubtedly would have predicted it. Lord Acton’s theory is simple: power left unchecked, or in the case of Wall Street, power holders without any regulations or rules to restrict them, will abuse their power to suit themselves at the cost of others. One could endlessly argue over this being a case of human nature versus sociological factors. I am going on record to say that it’s the combination of both. I don’t believe every guy who has power will, behind closed doors, abuse his power. But if he knows that nobody is going to reprimand him once he opens the door, it becomes a bit more tempting, doesn’t it?

In regard to organizations, the leader who abuses his power is nothing less than a plague. Abuse of power is a destructive force that undermines the trust among employees, kills loyalty and respect that direct reports may have had for their boss, and ultimately creates an atmosphere of apathy and disengagement in which productivity suffers.

The most insidious problem of abuse of power without consequence to the abuser is that the behavior becomes systematic within the organization. If the Chief Operating Officer is sexually harassing his administrative assistant, he’s modeling conduct that is excused and will be replicated at other levels within the organization. The behavior becomes a part of the culture. It’s the “just how things are done around here,” mentality which seals the fate of an organization, setting it on a disastrous course.

Sometimes it’s just the culture of silence that sets the course. In the case of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State College administrations’ decision to ignore his criminal behaviors, the organization’s silence horrified a nation and deeply wounded the university. As heinous as Sandusky’s crimes were, what remains center stage is the cover-up.

So abuse of power may be inevitable within organizations, but how swiftly and courageously its leaders responds to it is key to preserving the health and vitality of an organization. No one wants to work in a place where the people in power can do whatever they please without reprimand. It’s bad business, it’s bad for an organization’s reputation, and most important it’s bad for the organization’s collective psyche. We want to know that at the end of the day, the “bad guys” get punished, the “good guys” get rewarded, and that the organization actually has a moral compass.  Otherwise, what’s the point of getting up, going to work in the morning and putting in your best effort?


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