Beware the Surprising Ways Damage Can Happen When Power Is Misused

Last week I helped a senior leader prepare a status review and discussion for a board meeting. The subject of the deep conversation was the organization’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts and results, particularly as they related to customers, staff, and leadership. 

That experience got me thinking about two very troubling current events: the Russian invasion into Ukraine and the new anti-trans directive in Texas. These two events may not seem related, but please stick with me while I establish my premise.

1) It is well established that workforce diversity is crucial to business success. Different people with different perspectives simply can’t take each other for granted the way that people who think they’re all the same can. Diversity adds curiosity and multiple points of view to what might otherwise become a stale environment; enhances creativity and innovation; strengthens problem-solving and risk mitigation; and helps people articulate their thoughts to make sure they know what they mean. 

So I find it difficult to understand why any business owner or leader who cares about long-term growth and success wouldn’t want diversity — even if they don’t accept the moral argument that people should be able to bring their unique selves and perspectives to work. 

2) Often, when people have individual differences in their history, culture, race, brain chemistry and neurological processing, gender, and/or economic class, etc., they feel required to tamp down their true natures in order to fit better within the majority culture, whatever that happens to be. This is called “masking.” According to Wikipedia, masking is a “a process by which an individual changes or ‘masks’ their natural personality to conform to social pressures, abuse or harassment…. Masking can be strongly influenced by environmental factors such as authoritarian parents, rejection, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.”

Masking has a behavioral cousin, “code switching,” which, according to Harvard Business Review, “involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Accepting Differences Makes a Difference

Those in power often don’t notice that those without power are either masking or code switching. The powerful often assume that others are behaving “normally” when they don’t notice any differences or when they see the less powerful trying to emulate the powerful “appropriately.” This happens, for instance, when Black women eschew natural hairstyles for hairstyles that white people wear or when gay people don’t mention their partners or spouses at work because they fear it might affect their status or career trajectory.

Why would masking or code switching be necessary? Why would businesses have to think about ensuring DEI? Because of power. The typical human impulse to power is to hold on to it, not to share it — or, particularly under fear of loss of power, to misuse or abuse it to hurt others so that representatives of the dominant group can retain control.

The Ukraine-Texas Connection

Now, let’s take a look at the two upsetting current events I mentioned. First, this past week Russia staged a brutal and unprovoked invasion into Ukraine, demonstrating a complete willingness to kill Ukrainian military and civilians and destroy institutions and property. 

In the same week, the governor of Texas and his attorney general effectively declared that when the parents of non-gender-conforming or transgender kids provide their children with what is called “gender-affirming care”— according to standard medical care and research concerning transgender children — that these parents are committing child abuse. The likely outcome of this state action — besides inflicting great stress, anxiety, and suffering on non-gender-conforming and transgender kids and their parents — is a higher incidence of suicide, self-harm, and self-suppression among these kids.

I know that Russia’s invasion and what’s happening in Texas may seem like a strange pairing, but in both cases, power is being abused to confirm the control and impunity of the parties in power, and has shown that these parties are willing — and perhaps eager — to cause the suffering of the less powerful, targeted population.

So I’ve been feeling horrified and outraged a lot. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates his belief that Russia can just move in and take over another nation because he wants more than what he has. And in Texas we have the marginalization, demonization, and criminalization of real children and their loving parents because the power structure does not like the ways in which these children are trying to live their true lives and feel like their genuine selves. 

How can either of these situations possibly be legitimate?

What we do know for certain is that people work better, think better, participate better, engage better, are more innovative, create more, and help each other more when they feel that they can be themselves. Letting people be themselves in peace creates more benefit for everyone. It is outrageous and inhumane to punish and terrorize people so that you can control them and feel more powerful yourself.

Time to Take Action

These two events may seem in dramatic contrast with DEI efforts inside any given organization. But any abuse of power harms individuals, organizations, and society. If you agree with me, I encourage you to look for any ways in which you might be asserting power in order to control others or keep them from openly being themselves. In the short-term, managing and integrating differences can be disruptive and complicated, it’s true. But in the long run, differences strengthen communities and workplaces. It makes sense to learn to live with them, celebrate them, and help everyone thrive.

If you’d like to discuss how to tolerate and minimize disruption and encourage acceptance, please get in touch. Or if you’d like sources for supporting Ukraine or non-gender-conforming or transgender kids, let me know.

Onward and upward —


Leave a Reply