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  • Debbie Dougherty

Where do these Wicked Workplace Problems Come From?

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

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Sun Drop Fan Art. Picture by Freya Clark

It is frustrating, isn’t it? You think everything is rolling along brilliantly, and then you realize that you missed something. You have a problem. Not just any problem, but a vexing, wicked, cultural level problem that is infesting the entire organizational culture. It is creeping its way into hiring, decision making, training, organizational values. It is everywhere.

Sexual harassment





Information Hoarding

Counterproductive Competition.

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Often these problems are interrelated, with tentacles spread everywhere. You did not ask for these problems. You do not recall inviting them into the organization. You do not want them. But now, you have to address those problems, because if you don’t, those problems will just keep on growing.

Where do problems, like sexual harassment, come from?

They come from the larger culture within which your organization is embedded. These problems grow into your organization, whether you invite them there are not. Let's take sexual harassment as an illustration. Well, if you have been following my blog, you will recognize that I have been writing about these larger cultural problems for several months.

For example, as a result of our rigidly binary language, women experience a paradoxical set of expectations that make success impossible. Men are faced with a mythical ideal that is both unachievable and creates traumatic masculinity. We know that there is gendered and racial emotional manipulation that hamstrings women as they enter the workplace, and that women become objects of suspicion the moment they are seen as powerful.

What is the impact of sexual harassment?

Because these problems surround us in our everyday lives, they are particularly challenging to identify in your organization. We know that sexual harassment is embedded in the larger organizational culture. We know that the damage from this behavior occurs at every level of the organization—individual, team, organizational, clients. It can cause PTSD, derail teams, increase suspicion, decrease productivity, and in some situations, can be life threatening for clients of high reliability organizations. If you have read even the first chapter of my book, you know sexual harassment is a BIG and wicked problem.

Yet, when sexual harassment occurs, most business leaders can’t see it. Instead, they hyper focus on the target/perpetrator pair. They assume that it is an interpersonal problem, or worse yet, a personality problem. In other words, we tend to mistake the symptoms of a problem for the problem. It is like having a cold virus and assuming the problem is the sniffles. Yikes!

How does sexual harassment get woven into an organizational culture?

Let’s consider how sexual harassment becomes woven into the fabric of the organizational culture. As an organization develops, so does the communication that either encourages or discourages predatory sexual behavior. I can think of at least three ways in which sexual harassment can develop within an emerging organization.

The Predatory Founder

Sometimes the founder of the organization engages in predatory sexual behavior. Think Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Corporation. This is a guy who carefully and deliberately preyed on women who were trying to get into the movie business. This predatory behavior was then scaled up with the rest of the organization.

Misogynistic beliefs and values

Sometimes misogynistic beliefs and values are built into the organization such that people who perpetrate sexual harassment are hired and promoted over more qualified leaders. Take Uber for example. This organization was built on the odd ideal of “bro culture” and valued hiring “bros” over more qualified applicants. More recently, Andrew Tate deliberately built his multimillion-dollar financial advice online influencer business around his assertion that he was a misogynist. Weird, right? These organizations are built to host predatory sexual behavior.

The cultural embedding of sexual harassment through neglect

Oftentimes, predatory sexual behavior is simply not considered a real possibility, despite the fact that it is a well-documented problem. Sexual harassment and other socially problematic behaviors are ignored and therefore allowed to worm their way into the organization. Essentially, in the startup phase, organizations fail to consider what it wants to value and to implement the behaviors that would scale up those values over time. Sexual harassment becomes problematic because the organization failed to prevent it from becoming a problem.

And now, you must deal with it. I will talk you through this process over the next several weeks. For now, lets consider some initial action steps.

Action Steps

First, it is important to recognize that this could be your organization. It is possible. If you think your organization is somehow exempt, you may have a nasty case of the unique person syndrome! Second, look beyond the obvious. The perpetrator/target interaction is often the end product of a larger problem in your culture. Don’t mistake the tree for the forest! Third, if you don’t have predatory sexual behavior built into your culture, well, congratulations. Identify the processes that are working and then amplify and protect those processes.

It is time to lead these processes, instead of cleaning up after the fact. Let’s do this thing!

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