It has now become a painfully familiar story, tragedy upon tragedy unfolding in corporations, universities, athletic departments, media companies, the arts and show business, political organizations and churches.
An organization’s leaders allegedly heard rumors or direct reports of sexual abuse or harassment by a valued colleague, employee, or star, but did not take action. More victims suffered at the hands of the perpetrator. More reports were made and still no action was taken to remove the perpetrator and help the victims. Sometimes this went on for years, or even decades. Sometimes, there’s a concerted cover-up. Eventually, the story breaks open. The victims, now survivors, talk about the terrible consequences for their careers and their lives. The organization loses reputation, talent and money.
And while sympathy for the perpetrators is hard to come by, it is conceivable that some of their lives could have been spared complete destruction if their colleagues had acted immediately and forcefully upon the first whisper of a problem, removing them from the situation and requiring effective rehabilitation.
These catastrophes are, in large part, preventable.
Two threads must be followed in understanding the consequences of abuse or harassment for survivors. One is the direct damage done to the survivors by the trauma of the harassment or abuse. The second thread is damage done to survivors by the failure to act to protect by those leaders who could have stepped in and done something. Too often, this failure to intervene is compounded by a cover-up which, when it is revealed, deepens the survivors’ sense of betrayal by the institution they thought was meant to protect them. This betrayal leads to emotional pain and longstanding consequences that can be more severe and impactful than the trauma itself. Often called “moral injury,” this emotional damage due to “leadership malpractice” includes impairment of the capacity to trust, to be hopeful about the future, to even imagine a future and to engage in intimate relationships.
The frequency of this pattern of leadership failure begs psychological understanding. Inaction does not require malicious or evil intent. Unfortunately, given the right combination of circumstances, any of us is capable of it. This is a club no business or institution wants to be a part of.
Why do the leaders of institutions turn a blind eye when they hear reports of malfeasance by their priests, coaches, executives and doctors? Legal scholar Amos N. Guiora, Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, The University of Utah, calls the failure of bystanders to act when they know vulnerable people are being hurt “the crime of complicity.” If Guiora has his way, doing nothing would become a criminal offense. Several organizations have faced enormous financial penalties, and some have entered into bankruptcy. But well-known instances of monetary penalties from Title IX and other civil lawsuits have not stopped other leaders from engaging in negligent inaction, enabling and complicity. Criminal penalties might help by increasing awareness of the consequences of enabling an abuser by doing nothing.
Let’s assume the enablers are not evil, amoral people. If that’s the case, and I believe it is, then what is the psychology that permits them to not act when they hear reports of sexual abuse or harassment? To betray those to whom they are responsible—employees, students, athletes scouts, parishioners? To borrow Al Gore’s brilliant term, they fail to act because the stories they are hearing constitute “an inconvenient truth.” Investigating reports that a doctor, coach, priest or executive is abusing or sexually harassing vulnerable people leads to exposure, damage to the reputation of the institution, and loss of valuable assets.
Inconvenient truths and unwelcome negative emotions automatically mobilize psychological defense mechanisms. And this mobilization occurs outside of conscious awareness. A particularly powerful but little known defense mechanism known as “disavowal” is the dark operator in instances of inaction when one should act.
Disavowal is pervasive, mysterious and dangerous. It allows us to effectively block out painful or unwelcome information or feelings. With disavowal, we are able to strip unwanted things we know and feel of any power to motivate or direct us. Like all defense mechanisms, it arises as a protective and adaptive maneuver and, in small doses, it is essential. Would you be able to get in a car if you considered all the possible outcomes of your trip every time? We sequester possibilities of accidents and disasters as we go about our daily business. This is not just rational risk assessment. Disavowal effectively separates bits of mental contents removing their influence on each other. Awareness of some possible consequences is separated from fear, anger and other negative emotions. Negative emotions are separated from decision making processes. Inconvenient truths and inconvenient or unbearable emotions are pushed behind a wall where they can’t and don’t affect our decisions.
Disavowal allows us to “know but not know” in a strange and profound way. Here’s a possible sequence. Reports of damaging misbehavior by a colleague or employee come to the attention of leaders in the organization. The leader who hears the report is dismayed. They don’t need this headache right now. They fear a negative impact on the organization or its mission. They are disgusted and embarrassed. They don’t want to lose essential talent. They just don’t want to think about it. They don’t know what to do; inaction is a default position. And if later their inaction is revealed, a cover-up is tempting.
Now, treacherously, disavowal comes to the rescue. Painful or unwelcome information can be immediately sequestered behind a wall where it loses its ability to impact judgment. I always think of this metaphorical wall as made out of scratched and murky Plexiglas. It allows us to see what’s behind it, but not too sharply. The lack of sharpness supports the continuation of the disavowal. The disavowal enables the inaction.
It’s important to emphasize that this all happens automatically and unconsciously. It is very difficult to bring unconscious mental activity to conscious awareness. This is one of the main tasks that psychoanalysts pursue, and it is never easy. Strategies might include increasing the valence and sharpness of the disavowed information and feelings, making it harder to ignore them. Or weaken the wall that is put up. Or increase penalties and consequences for not looking and acting.
There are some realistic steps a business or organization can take to avoid being caught in complicity and cover-ups, even though the psychological forces to go down that path are so powerful and ubiquitous.
Here are some actions to consider.
1. Review your whistleblower policies to ensure that whistleblowers are maximally protected and rewarded and communicate this to everyone in the organization.
2. If you have failed to act on reports of abuse, discrimination or harassment, do “after-action reviews.” Look at the course of events as it relates to the structure of the organization. Were reporting mechanisms in place? Why didn’t they work? What broke down? Then, act on your findings with the necessary policy or structural changes
3. If your company hasn’t had one of these catastrophes, assume you are lucky, not immune. Because no one is. Review case studies from other organizations and incidents and see if your practices, policies and culture would protect you from behaving similarly.
4. Communicate real penalties for standing by and not acting when someone hears that vulnerable people are being hurt.
5. Assess your incentive structure—before an incident happens. When alleged perpetrators are involved in essential financially profitable enterprises, the pressure to push inconvenient truths about them behind that murky wall is immense.
6. Try to prevent enabling and bystander complicity by analyzing your most vulnerable sectors. Where would a scandal do the most damage to your reputation or financial wellbeing? Those are exactly the areas where complicity, or non-action, is most likely to be a temptation. Try a dry run in a workshop. Identify who qualifies as a vulnerable cohort—not legally but using common sense. What would you feel and worry about if you found out that a senior executive/athlete/coach/leader was reportedly abusing or harassing a vulnerable person? Common answers might include loss of reputation, loss of talent, loss of donors or business. The emotional pain that those answers suggest is precisely the force that would drive disavowal, inaction and cover-ups. Bringing it to the surface can leach out some of the toxic strength of these feelings and lessen the flight of inconvenient truths to the other side of that disavowal wall.
7. Don’t rely exclusively on packaged training courses on harassment or sexual violence. You need to look at your organization and its specific psychological vulnerabilities, structures and policies.
8. Resist the temptation to barricade the information.
The idea that the cover-up is worse than the act itself is so widely accepted as to be a cliché. And yet cover-ups keep happening. Enabling and complicity keep happening. Because the truths they avoid, at least in the short term, are deeply inconvenient. They are painful. The actions that need to be taken are onerous. The confrontation with human failings, including our own, is unwelcome. Disavowal is a powerful psychological force. But the alternative is worse. The consequences of being an inactive bystander to reputation, to financial wellbeing, and of course to the victims of malfeasance are enormous. And if Professor Guiora has his way, it might even be criminal.