We have seen it time and again. A powerful person abuses power and persists in bad behavior for an extended period. Currently, it is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Before him, it was Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and the list goes on and on.
There are unique aspects to every case, but the overall picture is usually the same. The New York attorney general’s report documents incidents of Cuomo sexually harassing and bullying young women as early as 2015. Although many believe removing the bad apple will solve the problem, such action is inadequate.
Perpetrators such as Cuomo could not have continued their bad behavior if the people surrounding them had not been complicit, supportive and willing to turn a blind eye. Collectively, such people form a network of supporters who protect and enable a perpetrator such as Cuomo. We call these “networks of complicity.” Even if the perpetrator is removed, the network remains powerful and entrenched. Its members will continue to harm others because it has become their behavioral norm.
Why does this persist? One short answer is networks of complicity can exist anywhere, in any industry or profession. They also protect and support perpetrators hiding unethical behavior from view. Research has shown that people in these networks of complicity become desensitized to bad behavior and often become abusive themselves. Thus, while perpetrators need to be removed, it is not enough. The network must be disbanded if safe, civil and equitable workplaces are to be restored.
Perpetrators such as Cuomo are excellent networkers and powerbrokers. They use their power and ability to grant or withhold rewards to build relationships inside and outside their organizations. As one of Cuomo’s accusers said, “And everybody [in his network], for the most part, gets promoted because they’re in the good graces of the Governor.” These benefits create fierce loyalty within the network. Bad behavior metastasizes within the group, and the organizational culture becomes toxic and abusive with plenty of uncivil behavior — yelling, screaming, cursing and berating of subordinates.
Perpetrators also particularly prey on young, inexperienced, powerless people who are often silenced because they fear losing their jobs if they object or resist inappropriate behavior. That is why such bad behavior isn’t often reported. Like victims of other perpetrators, Cuomo’s accusers refer to him as “very intimidating” and “very vindictive.”
Cuomo’s network removed assistants from his office when they complained, chose not to file reports or initiate investigations, and even retaliated against accusers by disseminating confidential files and circulating false and unfounded accusations about them. When confronted, Cuomo, like other perpetrators, created a myth and framed his problematic behavior as harmless, saying I’m an “old fashioned” man who merely uses terms of endearment such as “honey,” “darling” or “sweetheart.”
We can and must do better.
We need to focus not just on the perpetrator but also on the network of complicity that enables it. We need to recognize and prepare our organizations to detect the telltale signs of perpetrators and their networks. When uncivil behavior and bullying characterize a workplace, more of us need to take action. When leaders and their supporters circulate myths to reframe and justify bad behavior, we must see the red flags. We need courageous people willing to stand up and organizational policies and practices that detect, counter and prevent these bad behaviors and the networks that perpetuate them.
We cannot be blinded by the all-too-familiar rationalizations that prevent us from speaking up and mobilizing others to resist bad behavior — it’s not in my self-interest; it’s not my job; no one else seems to mind; I have to follow the lead of my boss. We must form our own empowered networks that create safe, civil and equitable workplaces where everyone can do their best work.
Minette E. Drumwright is an associate professor in the Moody College of Communication and the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
Peggy Cunningham is a professor in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University. The authors contributed equally to this commentary.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.