Watching the allegation of sexual harassment at Westminster unfold, fills me with a sense of despair. Only three weeks ago I was writing that dignity wasn’t optional in relation to the Hollywood revelations and now not a day goes by without allegations being made against another man in power.
One of the most fascinating aspects (if fascinating can ever be an appropriate term in this context) is the reaction of onlookers to the various allegations. As those accused provide the justifications for their actions or denials, others look on and pass judgment. Social media is full of commentary and the mainstream media provides opportunity for others to provide their analysis.
More than once I’ve read the phrase, “witch hunt” and I’m desperate to ask, “by whom?” and “for the sake of what?”. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the political lens that is being put on the allegations by many of those watching events unfold. Believing the stories of those that we agree with, or are like us, versus disbelieving those that aren’t alike.
At the heart of this is one of the biggest reasons that cultures permit behaviours to become entrenched that are unacceptable to the independent eye. When we choose to believe those that we like, trust or associate with because of that association and we do not base our assessment on fact, then we run the risk of allowing the system to get out of control.
That’s why our role as leaders has to be to bring an independent and rational approach to any type of allegation or complaint that is brought to our attention. That’s why we have to rise above relationships and look simply at the information that is presented before us. That’s why we have to be willing to make decisions that break a system as well as to strive to remake it.
In-group and out-group cognitive biases are pervasive in cultures that go wrong. “They’re all like that”, “they’re all at it”, but “we’re not like that” and “we’re different”. These biases prevent us from seeing the glaringly obvious, but also allow us to re-interpret the actions that we see and prevent us from taking the actions that we would otherwise call on others to take.
Ultimately, and sadly, issues like sexual harassment and bullying don’t understand organisational boundaries, they don’t understand political boundaries. They are as likely to happen in one place as another unless we put in the systems and interventions in place to try to minimise the occurrence. And that starts with recognising that when an issue is raised we need to be open, thoughtful and balanced in our approach.