ALC English Journal Article Nov 2013

Power Harassment

QUESTION: I can’t make negative comments to my subordinates because I’m worried that they may accuse me of power-harassment. How can I give them feedback on things they are doing wrong?

ANSWER: Although I’ve heard of “power harassment”, I didn’t understand the meaning until I researched it to answer your question. Based on the definition, you are quite right to be careful about how you give negative feedback to your subordinates.

What is Power Harassment? According to the Japanese Government, it’s “any kind of behavior in which a senior person takes advantage of their position in the workplace to cause coworkers physical or psychological pain.” Four of the six examples given seem reasonable: “committing acts of violence and other physical offenses, isolating or ignoring individuals, asking personal questions, and giving an employee nothing or very little to do.” But the other two were somewhat surprising:

  1. Asking junior people to “perform impossible tasks”. That’s bad news for me because the focus of my work is doing what seems impossible. And it’s also a potential problem for every manager because we tend to assume difficult tasks are impossible until we figure out how to do them. In any competitive business environment, managers must ask their people to tackle huge challenges, such as designing an innovative new product, or finding ways to win against competitors. Tasks like these might seem impossible, when in fact they are merely difficult.
  2. Causing junior employees “emotional stress”. I’ve worked for 20 different managers, and every one of them has occasionally caused me some sort of emotional stress. I sincerely hope that managers can’t be taken to court just because their people feel stressed out! With this definition it seems to me that most workers could justifiably accuse their managers of power harassment.

Feedback is Not Criticism. If your employees are doing something wrong that impacts the business results, it’s your responsibility to help them improve. But there is an enormous difference between criticism and feedback! Feedback may be welcome. Criticism never is. Of course, I’m not an attorney, so I can’t give you legal advice, but this guideline will help you avoid criticism, and be respectful when giving corrective feedback to your people.

In Criticism We . . .

In Feedback We . . .

Intend to change our people. Intend to help our people succeed.
Attack our people. Attack issues together.
Assume we are right, and they are wrong. Share our opinion and perspective.
Use judgmental language like “right and wrong”, or “good and bad”. Uses non-judgmental language about what’s working well, what’s not working, and what could work better.
Blame our people for whatever happened. Seek to understand our own contribution to what happened.
Tell our people what they need to do, because were sure were right. Ask our people what could work better next time, and listen to them generously.
Watch for signs that our people have repeated their mistakes, and criticize them again! Mentor and coach our people to help them make necessary changes for the better.

Of course you might do everything perfectly and still be accused of power harassment by an upset employee. No one said being a great leader was easy!

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