Positional Privilege

Monica Lewinsky and the Lesson on Positional Privilege

Monica Lewinsky has arrived back in the spotlight in the last few years, most recently because of her participation in “The Clinton Affair” documentary and her first-person account in Vanity Fair.

The affair was notorious but more importantly, it was misrepresented. In 1998, the affair revealed the role and misuse of positional privilege throughout the American workforce. Today, it was the greatest missed opportunity to recognize and discuss positional privilege and the responsibility of power at the national level.

The #MeToo movement is changing the way we think and talk about privilege, power, and assault.

Women who spoke out during the rise of #MeToo this past year were thanked and supported, while Lewinsky was shunned and bullied. Instead of seizing an opportunity, we vilified an intern and allowed similar events to take place in all industries at all levels of business and government for 20 more years. Whether intentionally or accidentally, many leaders take advantage in some way of those who feel beholden to their position.

Managers, senior leaders, and chief executives hold positional privilege, and that privilege can lead to others acquiescing to requests and demands. Rather than putting their own needs first or believing they have agency to share honest feedback, persons without this privilege defer to those in charge.

From the time a child is in grade school, they are taught to respect authority, fall in line, and please adults.

Constructive dissent essentially isn’t encouragement that’s passed down in school.

Consequently, from the moment an individual enters the workforce, they are conditioned to identify and follow the lead of management. If a person’s boss invites them to dinner or engages in inappropriate conversation, employees will oblige rather than give the appearance of disinterest.

Consider the c-suite or partner level executive that is sleeping with a subordinate who gets plum assignments, even when his or her skill set is lacking. It sets a tone and culture in the organization that makes people feel skeptical about whether they can advance on merit and they may feel unsafe to fully express themselves. The desire to go-along to get-along is driven by a wish to please and a desire not to rock the proverbial boat.

Challenges with power don’t always have to exert themselves in the context of sexual misbehavior.

In one organization, a c-suite leader continuously berated and bullied colleagues, subordinates on her team, and those outside her immediate team. She had the ear of the CEO and played an important role in risk mitigation at the organization. When peers tried to give feedback directly, they were shunned. Her toxic behavior was well known, yet colleagues felt powerless to deal with it.

People are reluctant to share honest feedback with leadership. The best leaders repeatedly ask for it, receive it, and create a culture where their teams feel comfortable speaking truthfully.

If there is a pattern of managers reacting poorly each time their team members raise issues, they are in effect using their authority to squash honest dialogue. While they might fully believe anyone can share an opinion, once people believe their feedback isn’t appropriately received, they will be less likely to raise issues in the future.

You invite your team to lunch, and they oblige. You ask your employee to accompany you to an after-hours event, and they agree to do so. You have a disagreement with a colleague and you vent to your team members. They listen and agree with your point of view.

If you’re the boss, would you expect anything otherwise?

These behaviors in and of themselves may not raise alarms but if you’re the leader, there is a power dynamic in existence already.

All of this points to one fact:

Leaders must be mindful of the power they wield in organizations.

If you’re in a leadership role, you need to be aware of the inherent power you possess.

As a leader, hold yourself to a higher bar, and refrain from actions or behaviors that put your team in an awkward situation.

Seek to create opportunities for dialogue and genuinely ask for (and act on) feedback. Don’t be the first to comment or indicate your preference.

There are simple, daily actions you can take as well. Get out of your office and hold meetings on others’ or neutral turf. Be genuine and authentic in your interactions with your team.

And, be mindful that not everyone on the team is laughing because your jokes are genuinely funny.

Not everyone is thrilled about going to drinks or dinner with their boss. They oblige and they laugh because they want to stay in good relationship with the person who signs their paycheck.

While most managers may not exhibit this level of power, if they are in a leadership position within a company, they must negotiate their privilege and leadership carefully. In fact, one of the reasons companies prohibit managers from being in romantic relationships with subordinates is due to the power dynamic.

Even though a leader may not intend to wield power manipulatively, it is impossible to manage power responsibly without an awareness that one indeed has power and positional privilege.