I could blame the hot weather for making me cranky, but I think it’s something else.  I’ve had too many conversations with lawyers this year about the difficulties of being heard, being acknowledged, and being fairly compensated.  Even for my coaching clients who are succeeding at their business development efforts, there is a sense that the game is, if not rigged against them, not set up to benefit them equally.  This reminds me of many conversations I had with my dad, who often said, “Whoever said life is fair?”  Although he recognized the unfairness of life, he deserves credit for hiring and promoting women and minorities in the 1960’s, long before diversity initiatives and talk of unconscious bias.

Micro-Aggression or “Normal” Behavior?

Given the number of examples I hear about inappropriate behaviors, I’m wondering when a micro-aggression can be reclassified as everyday bad behavior.  The following example is from the tech industry, where more women are speaking up about harassment.  Unfortunately, this experience is common across most, if not all, industries.  In an article that appeared in Bloomberg Gadfly, “Brave Women in Tech Can’t Weed Out Misconduct Alone,” Shira Ovide wrote:

“At a moderated discussion in April (2017) between Ellen Pao and Anita Hill, the law professor whose sexual harassment testimony was hailed as a turning point for women 26 years ago, the audience was asked to raise their hands if they’d been sexually harassed at work or knew someone who had. Nearly every hand went up among more than 1,500 attendees.”

In case you think this is an anomaly, I ask the same question about harassment whenever I teach an Unconscious Bias workshop.  Almost every woman raises her hand.  The men in the audience are surprised to learn that their colleagues have been harassed.  Some are unaware that they have been the perpetrators of the harassment.  The conversation may have started 26 years ago, but it is far from over.

The Role of Leaders

At the beginning of her article, Ovide writes about all of the brave women in the tech industry who have been speaking up about harassment, and asks “But do the people with the least power have to shoulder responsibility for weeding out misconduct by people with the most?”

The answer, for the moment, may be yes. The most powerful leaders are unlikely to have enough empathy to recognize the problem and take action.  In his “Power Causes Brain Damage” article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Jerry Useem writes about lab and field experiments conducted by Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley.  Keltner found that people who had been in positions of power “acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”  The Atlantic article goes on to say that as leaders become more powerful and spend more time in positions of power, they are “less able to make out people’s individuating traits” and they “rely more heavily on stereotype.”

This tendency to see stereotypes instead of individuals allows leaders to pretend that their organizations are meritocracies and that their performance review processes are fair and balanced. Their own “confirmation bias” plays a significant role in how they assess the skills and the long-term potential of their employees.  If a leader can only see people as stereotypes, he or she is much less likely to take action to correct or prevent bad behavior at every level of an organization.

The Path Forward Begins With Empathy

We need leaders who have high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ).  One of the key components of EQ is empathy, the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. We have to remember that words convey only about 10% of our communication, while 90% of the emotional content is conveyed by nonverbal cues.  It requires self-awareness to read body language, facial expressions and tone of voice in order to sense emotional states in others.  Paying attention to nonverbal cues helps us understand what a colleague might be feeling or how he or she would interpret a conversation.  Although it might sound daunting to acquire this skill, academically intelligent people can learn to become more empathic and emotionally intelligent.