“You may be sure that your sin will find you out.”
-Moses to the Israelites (Numbers 32:23)
Some lessons are planned. Other lessons just sort of emerge as I consider current events. As I was driving home on Wednesday I was mulling over the recent news that Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor have both been fired for sexual harassment. As I thought through the implications, I realized that there is a powerful lesson worth sharing here.
Twenty years ago, President Clinton was impeached for his affair with an intern. Even if the acts were consensual, no one could deny that the power imbalance between the President of the United States—the most powerful man on Earth—and a 22-year old intern who worked for him was enormous. This is important for two reasons. First, sexual harassment is as much about power as it is about sex. Second, at the time that the scandal broke, the nation was well aware of his previous predatory behavior toward female campaign volunteers and state employees, but the media turned a blind eye. Moveon.org was founded to urge the country to move on from the impeachment and focus on other causes.
More recently, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), the powerful ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, were also accused of sexual harassment. Franken was first accused of taking advantage of an actress while she slept; photographic evidence proved it. Seven additional accusers eventually came forward, demonstrating a pattern of behavior that continued after he became a United States Senator. John Conyers took advantage of women who worked in his office. He then paid them off with taxpayer dollars from his congressional office budget. Notice the power imbalance at play in each scenario.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is one of the few things in Washington that is non-partisan. 93-year old President George H. W. Bush issued a formal apology for having “patted women’s rears.”[i] Alabama’s Republican Senatorial candidate, Roy Moore, was recently accused of similar actions. Though Moore has consistently denied the accusations, the power dynamics at play are similar. Anyone following the case will note the power imbalance between a 30-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl.
In 2016, Fox News was shaken by sexual harassment scandals. Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes for sexual harassment and Carlson won a $20 million settlement and Roger Ailes, the founder of the network was fired as a consequence. In 2017, Lisa Wiehl won a $32 million settlement from Bill O’Reilly for sexual harassment, and O’Reilly, the station’s biggest name, was fired. Eric Bolling was later fired for sexual harassment too.
Now, the powerful in Hollywood and Washington are terrified at their actions may come to light. For years, they carried on with their behavior as if everything was okay. Apparently everyone knew what they were doing, but no one was willing to say anything about it. It was an “open secret.”
Last Wednesday, accusations were levied at Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame. Minnesota Public Radio fired him within 24 hours. After Keillor’s immediate dismissal, he tweeted: “It’s astonishing that fifty years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation. I always believed in hard work and now it feels sort of meaningless.”[ii]
For now, let’s call this Keillor’s dilemma.
Keillor’s dilemma is interesting. It is an open question whether the perpetrators have ever considered the lifetime of emotional and psychological consequences that they inflicted on others, but now they are experiencing similar pain as they reap what they have sewn.
Keillor apparently never thought that anything would happen to him. But the rules have changed. Now a lifetime of hard work is being discarded because the culture unexpectedly shifted and bad behavior is being exposed (and rightly condemned).
This lesson is not about sexual harassment. Let’s widen the lens a little bit and just focus on how we think about treating other people.
What if culture shifts again and we refuse to tolerate bullies who come to power by climbing on the backs of their subordinates? Or, what if legally sound but ethically questionable deals are the target of the new cultural banishment? Would you be ousted by your employees or your clients? It sounds improbable, but years ago, the victims of sexual harassment hid in fear and shame. No longer. In the current zeitgeist, women are applauded for having the courage to come forward and accuse their perpetrator.
Steven Covey offered a reasonable solution to Keillor’s dilemma but it only works when it is applied preventatively. In The 7 habits of Highly Effective People, he described the superiority of Win/Win thinking over Win/Lose thinking. He was talking about negotiation, but his solution could just as easily apply to management. He explained, “Win/Lose is the authoritarian approach: ‘I get my way; you don’t get yours.’ Win/Lose people are prone to use position, power, credentials, possessions, or personality to get their way.” This was true of the powerful in each of the sexual harassment scandals that have recently broke. It is just as true when bad bosses bully employees and when salesmen take advantage of customers. He continued:
In contrast, Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena. Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies: strong or weak, hardball or softball, win or lose. But that kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others.[iii]
Whether we’re talking about sexual harassment, schoolyard bullies, power-plays in the office, The boss taking credit for others’ work, or writing one-sided contracts, they are all win-lose arrangements. One day, these behaviors may be subject to the same type of cultural allergic reaction that we are experiencing now. The key that unshackles Garrison Keillor’s dilemma is to recognize and respect others’ humanity. The evidence of that respect is found in win-win behavior.
What About You?
Even if you believe that Win/Lose behavior is acceptable by today’s standards, there’s no guarantee that any behavior that takes advantage of another person will be acceptable tomorrow. Strive for Win/Win solutions in all your dealings and you won’t have to worry about how you’ll be viewed ten, twenty, or fifty years from now.
[i] Jackson, D. (2017, October 25). President George H. W. Bush apologized for sometimes patting women on the rear. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/10/25/president-george-h-w-bush-apologizes-actress-who-alleged-improper-touching/797846001/
[ii] Justin, N. (2017, November 30). ‘I think I have to leave the country,’ Garrison Keillor says after firing. StarTribune. Retrieved from http://www.startribune.com/garrison-keillor-fired-for-improper-behavior/460802703/#1
[iii] Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster. (p. 207).
Dr. Darin Gerdes is an Associate Professor of management in the School of Business at Charleston Southern University. All ideas expressed on www.daringerdes.com are his own.
This post was originally created for Great Business Networking (GBN), a networking organization for business professionals where Dr. Gerdes is the Director of Education.