Dear Men in Power:
You may have been wondering A) why you’ve seen so many women lying on the ground in the last few days, and B) whether their trembling meant they were crying or laughing.
The answers are: B) Both, and A) They’re lying on the ground after reading a creepy account about Rep. Pat Meehan trying to explain his relationship to a staffer who felt sexually harassed, and an especially outrageous quote from him about what it was like working in his office: “There’s no hierarchy — we call it Team Meehan.”
Women are sobbing or laughing (or both) because Meehan’s statement stands out as a crystallization of cluelessness that is at the heart of men, power, and harassment. It’s like saying, “I know all my subjects are loyal because I am king.”
And that goes to the heart of power dynamics in the workplace and beyond that have opened the floodgates of the #MeToo movement. In Meehan, who announced he won’t seek reelection but remains in office, we have an older powerful man who is surrounded by younger staffers. He forms an attachment, perhaps even a bit of an obsession, with a woman staffer decades younger than himself. The basis of this attachment is how much she does for him, keeping his office running, keeping the world at bay, perhaps anticipating his needs and fulfilling them before he even has to ask. In other words, doing her job. In his mind, this attentiveness to his needs makes them “soul mates.”
Poor, pathetic Pat.
Maybe this young assistant truly liked and admired him, and got job satisfaction from making the life of a powerful man easier. So many women, after all, are trained to be supportive and helpful, and often derive their own sense of power and worth from this role.
I feel safe in conjecturing this because this, after all, is the workplace, and it plays out on every floor of every office building in the universe. The human dynamics between the powerful and those who serve them are complicated enough even without throwing gender into the mix. Laughing at the unfunny jokes of your boss, doing something on his or her behalf that is odious or against your better judgment, or pretending to think their ideas are good when they’re not: we all have done this at least once in our lives, and some have to do it every day.
What’s especially egregious about Meehan’s story is that he was too stupid, too vain, too deluded to understand that the job this assistant was performing was her job: to make his life easier, to help this powerful man maintain his own sense of his power.
If Meehan wasn’t so blinded by delusion, he would not have fallen prey to thinking that members of his staff perform their tasks not because he is Beloved King, but because it is their job and he pays them to do it.
The workplace has its intimacies. Many people joke about having “work wives” and “work husbands” … mates and partners and colleagues who share common goals (and enemies) and are able to communicate so well they don’t need words. The basis of a highly effective office is often a common vision and sense of purpose. And it’s actually the boss’ job to foster that sense, to build a team that will work together and be motivated by that sense of purpose.
The problem with Meehan, and with other men caught in the net of sexual harassment, is that he believed that he and his needs — including non-workplace needs — were the higher purpose. From there, we can imagine an easy leap into thinking an assistant dedicated and committed to her job must be dedicated and committed to him personally. And maybe even be a soul mate.
This is further borne out by the fact that he paid the assistant a settlement out of his own congressional funds, as if there were no separation between himself and his office.
There are many other lawmakers who never manage to make that separation. Some of them are in jail.
Meehan’s problem is not his power. It’s his narcissism. Narcissists lash out when they feel betrayed, like Meehan’s anger at the fact his assistant had a boyfriend. Narcissists believe they are the center of the universe, and make statements like “there’s no hierarchy — we call it Team Meehan.”
Since this is addressed to men in power, here’s what you should know if you happen to be one: It may not be easy to step away from encouraging adoration and total personal commitment from your staffers. It might shore up some of your own insecurities, especially if you don’t get the same sense of importance and adoration from those who live in your house. But you pay them, and that means they can’t always be honest with you — about how your attention creeps them out or your demands make them uncomfortable. It’s your job to be the grown-up. If you have power, know that part of the price is that you have to use it to get things done, not to make yourself feel better.
If you find yourself mistaking that teamwork with “family” or that service with “love,” it’s time for you to step down.