Why do far too many leaders cover up for abusers? Why is there so much institutional complicity enabling abuse to continue? What’s going on in the brains of leaders who protect abusers rather than victims?
Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics protected predator Dr. Larry Nassar for decades instead of safeguarding his many victims. Notably, the FBI did so, too. The gymnasts’ lawsuit against the FBI is $1 billion. The years-long scandal involved many reports of abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar, with none resulting in his removal. This is one example among many that reveal how covering up and enabling abuse is a serious and costly failure in leadership.
In the last decade, leaders have failed to stop abuse at Penn State, Rutgers, Baylor, University of Maryland, Boy Scouts, Catholic churches, Soccer Canada, Canadian residential schools, and in Hollywood.
My theory as to why leaders protect abusers is two-fold. Both theories involve the brain.
First, imagine that you’re the leader of an organization and you receive a report that an employee is abusive. You confront the employee, he or she denies it, and now it’s a case of “he said, she said.” Your brain is stuck on the fact that the alleged perpetrator doesn’t behave like an abuser in front of you or many others. Your brain can’t make sense of the perpetrator’s two different personas.
The confusion leads the brain to generate counter facts in order to make sense of the impasse. You start to think: The victim is exaggerating, is too sensitive, has another agenda, misunderstood, or caused or deserved the abuse.
Alongside these counter facts, you might also think: I’ve worked with the alleged perpetrator for a long time; I’ve never seen the alleged perpetrator be abusive; I have dinner with the alleged perpetrator and his or her partner; plus, the alleged perpetrator is popular, charismatic, and a pillar of the community.
Once your brain has generated these counter facts, you decide to victim-blame and give the alleged perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.
This approach falls apart when you get the second, third, and fourth reports of the perpetrator’s abusive conduct. The problem is, it’s too late. You’re now in the position of being negligent. You were informed about his or her abuse and you didn’t protect victims. How do you cope with this crisis?
You cover up.
My second theory about why leaders protect abusers and not victims relates to the brain’s capacity for empathy. Empathy is when you feel someone’s pain. How does a leader’s innate empathy run amok so that it guides her to protect abusers and become an accomplice to their crime?
Psychiatrist Dr. Helen Reiss found that there’s an inverse relationship between power and empathy. The more power, the less empathy. Reiss explains that our brains are tribal when it comes to how we feel empathy. Our tendency is to have empathy for those who most resemble us in appearance, station in life, and experience.
Our brain puts those we don’t resemble into an “out-group” for whom we have little or no empathy. This tendency explains our tragic history of dehumanizing and destroying human beings who appear different, come from different backgrounds, and have less power than we do.
Now, imagine how these empathy impulses in the brain surface in an abuse scenario.
An abuse report comes in. The leader’s brain hits the impasse of “he said, she said” and begins to generate counter facts to make sense out of the confusion. Empathy arises in its tribal form and the leader puts the victim in the “out-group.”
Victims, especially if they’re children or young adults, are easily put into the out-group because they don’t reflect the leader. But the alleged abuser, who is an adult, does.
The leader can rationalize and dismiss the victim’s suffering as something temporary that he or she will get over or move beyond. But if the alleged perpetrator is held accountable, he or she will lose their reputation, lose their job, and possibly go to jail. These are deep fears that the leader shares with the alleged perpetrator, increasing his sense of empathy.
Ironically, leaders who cover up and enable abuse are far more likely to ultimately lose their reputation, their job, and perhaps go to jail. They’re far more likely to ruin the reputation of their institution and cost it vast amounts of lost funds. These are all outcomes of the recent abuse scandals noted at the outset.
How can leaders protect themselves from being led astray by their brains into enabling abuse?
1. Put in checks and balances to protect against counter facts. Leaders need frequent practice in testing their counter facts against objective facts and research. Leaders need to question the validity of every counter fact that dismisses, questions, doubts, and otherwise holds the victim to account for reporting abuse.
2. Learn to identify the traits of an abuser. Leaders need to be well-versed in the split personality that’s common among abusers. They need to know that being popular, charismatic, and having a following are textbook traits of those who abuse. Abusers are known to ingratiate themselves with powerful figures. While they groom their victims, they also groom the leaders.
3. Recognize the damage to victims. Leaders need to be knowledgeable about the ways in which victims’ brains become damaged by all forms of harassment and abuse. It’s not an easy recovery. Victims don’t grow out of it. For many victims, it destroys their health, happiness, and productivity.
4. Understand the way the brain unfairly parcels out empathy. If empathy diminishes in the brain as you become a leader, work relentlessly to retain empathy for everyone in your organization. Train yourself to avoid the tribal tendency to have empathy for those who reflect you and callously disregard those who don’t.
Succeeding at this challenging aspect of leadership means not letting your brain lead you astray. Instead, use your mind to manage your brain.