Men who harass subordinates fear being judged as incompetent

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Men who harass subordinates fear being judged as incompetent

New research shows that this behavior is actually related to feeling threatened and wanting to maintain one’s social status.      

What the researchers say: The high-profile men who’ve recently been accused of sexual harassment may not have been simply exercising their power. Instead, their behavior could be related to feeling insecure and believing that others find them ill-suited to or undeserving of their dominant position. The findings indicate that harassment is sometimes about trying to look more competent and in control in the eyes of others.   

Most studies about sexual harassment have focused on the characteristics of victims, and how they experience and deal with the harassment. Some studies show that men in powerful positions are more inclined to sexually harass subordinates (male or female).   However, not all men at the top are harassers. In this study, the researchers set out to understand whether there are specific aspects of a man’s disposition that make him more prone to misusing his power to harass others, which can include attempts to gain sexual favors.   

The researchers conducted three different studies using a combination of adults and college students, some of which included only men and some of which included both men and women. In one study, 273 men had to imagine themselves in the powerful position of a male employer who was in a position of power over a female employee or interviewee. These men were asked to indicate whether they would ask for sexual favors in return for securing her a job, a promotion, or some other job-related benefit. Participants also had to answer questions that measured their self-esteem and how narcissistic they were, as well as how important they perceived others’ opinion and criticism of them.   

The outcomes of the study support the idea that powerful men are especially inclined to sexually harass others when they worry that they will be perceived as incompetent. The same did not hold true for women. These findings corroborate the theory that sexual harassment is in part a byproduct of a person feeling threatened and wanting to maintain his social status.   “Fearing that others will perceive you as incompetent is a better predictor of sexual harassment than your self-perceived incompetence,” explains the lead author.   “The findings also suggest that men do not necessarily harass women because they seek sexual gratification, but rather because their insecurity about being perceived as incompetent prompts them to want to undermine a woman’s position in the social hierarchy,” add the researchers.   

The researchers believe that sexual harassment in the workplace should be examined more broadly. They say companies should also work towards creating cultures that do not foster feelings of insecurity.   

So, what? The idea that men and women should be in competition with one another is very recent from an evolutionary perspective. There was no internal economic competition within the hunter-gatherer band. Partly this was because men and women had distinct roles within it (though there was a certain amount of cross-over) and because there was no scarcity.   

In the modern workplace that is no longer the case. Well-paying jobs are becoming scarcer and there’s no clearly defined way for employees to achieve safety except through competition. The fear and insecurity mentioned by the researchers is bound to increase and with it the harassment.  

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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