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Eliminate the risks of calling out bad behaviour

Question: I’ve been watching the news and allegations about the treatment of women in Parliament and started thinking about how it would apply if I ever saw something like this in my own workplace. I agree with many commentators that if we want to stop disgusting behaviour from continuing, we must call it out.

I also think that for many it’s either daunting, terrifying, dangerous or a futile exercise.

Are there legitimate alternatives to “calling out” the worst kinds of sexism and foul behaviour when it’s done by men with cultural strength, or is standing up to bullies the only way?

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

Answer: Horror seems to me like an entirely fitting response to allegations about the treatment of women in Parliament and other high-profile industries. What I’ve also found horrifying is the response to some of these allegations (and many others over years and years), responses in which people of great responsibility express sympathy for alleged abusers and deride or dismiss those who’ve claimed to have been abused.

In other words, powerful people siding with other powerful people.

One way of looking at your question is to consider it a matter of personal fortitude – by that I mean, whether or not you “call out” the worst kind of behaviour comes down to whether or not you have the psychological wherewithal to do so. And while it’s absolutely true that in cases like this, it takes extraordinary courage to come forward, to make a report, to intervene, I think a potentially better way of thinking about the question is by considering power first.

Any person could look at a potential contest between themselves, all on their own, and an immovable leviathan and turn away, not through lack of bravery but through lack of power.

Michael Leiter, a professor of organisational psychology in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, says there are, just as you’ve asserted, “real risks in calling out powerful people”.

“Calling someone out is a power move in itself, and one must always have a clear path ahead when making a move against entities with more power than you have.

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