“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

4 responses

  1. I have been engaging nursing and medical leaders to try to put a check on the abuse of power. In recent weeks I have had positive responses from three national leaders. Competencies/standards are in the discussion stages, not only under workplace bullying, but nursing ethics and high reliability organizational frameworks. I’m hopeful that in the near future, managers/leaders will transition to management through respect and no longer wield power through fear, as many have for decades.

  2. David, I could not agree with you more on how some people falsely believe that the rules do not apply to them. Nine years ago, I had a car accident where a legal official hit me and was at fault and tried to blame the accident on me. The reason the case took four years to settle was because this person lied to the insurance company that I was on my cell phone when the accident happened. After getting my cell phone records, it showed I was not on the telephone at the time of the accident.

  3. David,
    It’s obvious to me that one political cohort in our congress and senate has become too dominant and powerfully abusive such that it can get away with being enablers and apologists for pure evil.

    I too think it is a good idea for us to implement or reinforce mechanisms of checks and balances in our public, private and non-profit institutions.

    When those of higher rank in my non-profit workplace started to lie to us regarding certain aspects of sequestration cutbacks, I reminded them about your plain, simple and unarguable observation: “Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.” Lying is a form of hostility and aggression that creates the perception of organizational injustice. I thought that there could be a kind of checks and balances to abuse of power by writing a suggestion to have our Bullying Policy, which I had encouraged in 2005, be included in our Employee Manual, as it hadn’t been by 2013; just a reminder that we had previously agreed about things like lying and bullying. I also suggested that along with the three mentions of “at will” employment in the Employee Manual, those three warnings could be balanced by a mention of California’s “implied covenant of good faith and faith dealing” in employment matters–just to kind of balance out the hard-nosed, unilateral “at will” with something a bit more humanistic in this our supposedly humanistic service non-profit. I turned in my suggestions on a Monday and was fired the next day.

    Far from being pessimistic about Healthy Workplace Legislation in the time of a Psychopathic Illegitimate Presidency, I am greatly encouraged that the education I got from the Namies and from you and others on all aspects of bullies and bullying has prepared me to understand the political lying and bullying to which we’re being subjected. And one of the things all good people can do to defeat the evil is to encourage all legislative bodies to make the destructive nature of lies and bullying–that they can first-hand witness in this new regime–something for everyone to have to be aware of and to counter in the workplace. It’s the least we can do. We will not tolerate any developing proto-Trump liars and bullies in the workplace.

    Bullying, malicious harming, abuse of power, and mobbing of employees, all these are legal in the workplace. They are legal but illegitimate behaviors. Like the Trump Presidency, they are merely legal, but totally illegitimate. Some of the definitions and synonyms of illegitimate are: not in accordance with accepted standards; fraudulent, corrupt, dishonest; malfeasant; crooked, shady. That’s what the harming of individuals through bullying and mobbing in the workplace is: merely still medievally legal, but totally illegitimate—disgustingly fraudulent, corrupt, dishonest and malfeasant. Defeat the illegitimate “legality” of workplace bullying!

  4. I agree that management think they are exempt from the terrible workplace harassment that goes on.
    I work for a state agency and I have been sexually and physical assaulted, among with stalking, retaliation for voicing my concerns to upper management. Now my time sheet is being tampered with and am not getting paid for certain days out of the month. All fall on management deaf ears. How much can a person endure without going crazy. Good thing I am strong and a fighter for my rights.
    Below is how I am now handling each each issue with hopes of resolving these issues:

    . Assaults and stalking- CHP, District Attorney
    . Retaliation – Labor Board
    . Wage theft – Union, Controllers office, Labor Board

    All stated above- Congressman’s office

    Through this whole process, I got so sick and tired of people stating it is not in their jurisdiction or they cannot help me, so here I go again trying to get help from people stated above. Through this terrible fight a person questions if they have any rights at all. I still question this.
    I am trying so hard to reach out for help. This has left me with physical and psychological scars. Too young to retire and cannot afford to quit or find another job.
    Pls. respond and tell me your thoughts.

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