How The #MeToo Movement Is Affecting Your Leadership (And You Might Not Even Notice)

In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million Facebook posts during the first 24 hours alone. But you don’t have to be on social media to be aware of the impact of the #MeToo movement.

Since that initial avalanche of stories, we’ve heard from celebrities, from members of Congress, from business executives, from stay-at-home moms. Mostly, we’ve seen #MeToo stories posted by women, but men are standing up to be counted as well. We’ve seen accusations against Hollywood moguls, celebrity comedians, politicians and, in uncounted social media posts, a range of colleagues, bosses, even clients and vendors. And we’ve seen the repercussions as alleged aggressors are shunned, fired and in several cases, charged with sex crimes.

This conversation presents both a challenge and an opportunity to you as a leader. Considering the sobering statistics on the number of people in the United States who have experienced rape or sexual abuse, it’s highly probable that, whether you know it or not, you have multiple survivors on your team. Just consider that according to this fact sheet posted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused before they turn 18, and one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point during their lives. And those statistics don’t address unwanted sexual advances, slurs or harassment.

How many people do you interact with every workday? How many direct reports, peers, managers and customers (external and internal) look to your leadership to help them succeed? Do the math. If those statistics apply, what is the likelihood that you talk to at least one survivor every day?

Why is the #MeToo movement your problem? Surely we can expect that true professionals won’t let their history of sexual abuse or harassment affect their work, right? Well for the most part, that is what we’ve expected, and it’s what we’ve achieved, to some extent. But is that really in our best interest or the best interests of our companies?

Certainly, many survivors go through their entire lives without revealing their past. And some of them are among the most tenacious, productive, driven and successful people you’ll ever know. Anyone who has survived that kind of trauma probably had to be a little tougher, a little more determined and a little more disciplined than their peers just to get where they are.

But if there is anything I’ve learned in 20-plus years of coaching professionals, it’s that no matter how diligently or successfully your people work to compartmentalize their personal experience from their professional performance, they always access greater levels of creativity, problem-solving, panoramic visioning and goal achievement when they are not required to commit energy to keeping those aspects of their life separate and when they work in environments that are safe and supportive.

That means that we, as business leaders, cannot afford to ignore these statistics or the impact of the #MeToo movement. Right now, you have people who are reliving some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. Whether they’re joining the movement, telling their stories or keeping their silence, you have both survivors and abusers who are being reminded of past traumas on an almost daily basis. You might not know who these people are, and you might not see a change in their behavior. But it’s almost certain that they are expending energy maintaining the behavior and performance you’ve come to expect from them while they process the personal implications of the #MeToo articles, posts and revelations. And that is energy that cannot go into their work.

We can choose to stick to “business as usual” and pretend that this movement is something happening outside of our cubicles and conference rooms. Or, we can take the initiative to review internal policies, to establish personal ethics and boundaries and to invite questions and concerns rather than waiting for formal complaints or leaving people to suffer in fear of discovery. We can maintain a “code of silence,” or we can invest in creating a culture of universal respect and ensuring a safe environment for our people to create, express and produce the value for which they are paid.

This movement is changing the standards of professional behavior, and it is gathering the momentum to change interpersonal relationships between men and women in every public arena. This conversation is happening in your workplace, whether you are aware of it or not, and as a leader, you need to be a constructive voice in that conversation. The tone you set will determine the part you play in the change.

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