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STOP the Abuse of Power


Abuse of power is a phenomenon that occurs when someone uses their authority or position to harm, manipulate, or exploit others. It can happen in various contexts, such as politics, business, education, health care, body corporates, with neighbours and intimate relationships. Abuse of power can have serious consequences for the victims, such as psychological distress, physical injury, financial loss, or loss of freedom. Abuse of power may occur over extended periods as the people abusing their power often perceive they are protected and untouchable. However, the laws in Australia have changed and bullying is now viewed as a crime and people in business, board members, body corporates, neighbours, or in school can be prosecuted. This change has allowed people to stand up to power abusers and prevent further harm.

I am often asked by organisations to intervene when complaints of bullying, harassment incidents are reported. Interventions include:

· Mediation

· Coaching

· Counselling

· Team reset and realignment workshops

· Psychological safety strategy sessions

· Leader as coach development sessions.


But what drives some people to abuse their power? And why do others fail to intervene or help the victims? In this blog post, we will explore some of the psychological factors that underlie these questions and suggest some ways to prevent or stop abuse of power.


The Psychology of Abusers

Abusers often feel insecure, powerless, or inadequate in some aspects of their lives. They may have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect in their childhood or adulthood. They may have a narcissistic personality or other related personality disorders. To cope with these feelings, they seek to gain control and dominance over others, especially those who are perceived as weaker, dependent, or vulnerable.

Abusers use various tactics to exert their power, such as intimidation, coercion, manipulation, deception, threats, violence, or isolation. They may also justify their actions by blaming the victims, denying the harm, or rationalizing the benefits with the old cliché “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business”. Abusers often lack empathy, remorse, or accountability for their behaviour. They may also have distorted beliefs about themselves, others, and the world, such as entitlement, superiority, or paranoia.


The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that describes how the presence of others can inhibit people from helping someone in need. The more bystanders there are, the less likely any one of them will intervene. This is because of two main reasons: diffusion of responsibility and social influence.

Diffusion of responsibility means that people feel less personally responsible for helping when others are around. They may assume that someone else will take action, or that their help is not needed or wanted. Social influence means that people look to others for cues on how to behave in a situation. They may conform to the majority or avoid standing out or being criticized.

Abusers like to have support for their cause. Their social skills and positions of power can compound the issues by enrolling others in “group shun.” The group – made up of the abuser and those who are weak enough to fear that if they don’t join in, they will be the next victims – acts as a pack to ostracize an individual. Bullies often seek to remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy and cowardice. They influence others to join in so if they are detected, they can avoid blame by deflecting their behaviour onto others in the group.

The bystander effect can be influenced by various factors, such as the ambiguity, urgency, or severity of the situation, the relationship between the victim and the bystander, the perceived costs and benefits of helping, and the personal characteristics of the bystander, such as empathy, moral values, or self-efficacy.


How to Prevent or Stop Abuse of Power

Abuse of power can be prevented or stopped by various means, such as:

  • Educating people about the signs, effects, and causes of abuse of power, and encouraging them to speak up, report, or seek help when they witness or experience it.

  • Creating and enforcing policies and laws that protect the rights and dignity of people, and that hold abusers accountable for their actions. In the workplace - ensure you develop and maintain a psychologically safe work culture.

  • Providing support and resources for the victims and survivors of abuse of power, such as counselling, legal aid, or financial assistance.

  • Promoting a culture of respect, diversity, and inclusion, where people value and appreciate each other’s differences and similarities, and where they cooperate and collaborate for the common good.

  • Developing and enhancing one’s personal power, such as self-esteem, confidence, assertiveness, and resilience, and using it in positive and constructive ways, such as helping others, pursuing one’s goals, or expressing one’s opinions.

Abuse of power is a serious and widespread problem that affects many people and societies. By understanding the psychology of abusers and bystanders, and by taking action to prevent or stop abuse of power, we can create a safer and fairer world for everyone.

If you believe you have been subjected to an abuse of power, support is available at:

1800RESPECT (1800 7373 732) Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Lifeline – 131114


You may also contact me for additional information or individual and team support @

Paul Saunders, Psychology Director, LN Consulting Australia Pty Ltd.



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