The abuse of power

‘Command’ is a word synonymous for anyone thinking about the military. However, it exists in all business. In the military, it is a legally binding relationship between leaders and subordinates. The latter are legally obliged to obey (unless an order is illegal) and the former is held accountable for the actions of their subordinates (regardless of their physical presence). This relationship is why chains of command exist, orders/action power/responsibility.

Leaders come from all walks of life, often entirely different from their subordinates. With this diversity comes a broad spectrum of biological and learned personal or cultural values and prejudices which encompass right and wrong, love, tradition, tolerance, taboo and hate. These values can be conscious or unconscious and exposed or repressed.

Through education, new values can be imprinted on individuals which conform to current behavioural expectations — the essence of being ‘institutionalised’. Unfortunately, this process will likely never completely erase previously learned behaviours. Fortunately, through social pressures, our brains are able to repress unwanted actions to emulate favourable ones. If this is the case how do people reach the point where they abuse power? Four themes can be used to understand where people are tempted to abuse their power.

1. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander

The perception that abuse of power only occurs behind closed doors is false. It often happens in plain sight, in offices, on sports pitches or in public. This happens through the repeated inaction of sometimes dozens of people and their perception that someone else will step in. Deep-rooted psychological forces are at play in these circumstances which can manifest themselves with only a few individuals present.

This trend can be called the ‘bystander effect’ an example of which is the ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s (sometimes) fire’ experiment by Latané and Darley [i]. This sees a correlation where the more observers of an emergency the less likely one is to act. They used examples of fire or sounds of epileptic seizures from adjacent rooms, however, this can be easily transferred to the symptoms of the abuse of power such as bullying, manipulation or even physical violence.

2. Ignorance is not an excuse

We are currently on the tails of a surge of focus on developing safeguarding measures, and we must not lose sight of who we are seeking to protect and why. Scandals abound, policies are introduced, staff trained, problems dissolved and business returns to the usual. We have recently seen in the news various cases of historical abuse, sometimes spanning decades or longer. Be it in education, aid, faith, entertainment or sporting environments there are examples of corporate ignorance and denial which have prevented change or action to protect people. The five monkeys story tells a tale of ignorance, learning and imitating behaviours without question:

“Some monkeys are placed in a cage with a ladder in the middle, on the top of the ladder is a banana. When a monkey climbs to reach the banana, the rest are hosed with water. The monkeys begin to actively prevent one another from climbing the ladder, as they have learned it results in punishment.

Time passes and none reach for the banana, the hose is then removed from the equation — which the monkeys are unaware of, as they prevent any monkey from climbing the ladder to check. The monkeys are then slowly replaced one at a time. Each new one sees the banana, reaches for it but the other monkeys, knowing what will happen, attack the new monkey and pull it down.

The new monkeys quickly learn. They learn to not climb, and to attack any others who do. This process is repeated until all the original monkeys have been replaced. The cage is now filled with monkeys who won’t climb the ladder and not a single monkey knows the reason.”

This anecdote illustrates how those entering a new environment can conform with the pre-existing behaviours without questioning them, often even if there are bad or abusive practices in play. The desire to ‘fit in’ can be overwhelming for both staff and dependants. This applies to staff who are both ‘bystanders’ or managers who can be hesitant to intervene or hold their subordinates to account and to dependants who will not raise their concerns.

3. Good people can harm others

We all have a perception of what authority looks like. These preconceptions can be moulded by those we see in school, university, the media, uniforms, film, religion, television and books. With this imprinted on our subconscious, we are all predisposed to default to those we deem to be figures of authority — good people respect authority and obey orders. However, how far can a good person be pushed by an authority to do wrong? The Stanley Milgram Experiment from Yale University sets a revealing light on what good people are capable of:

“The experiment sees three participants in two rooms with a window between. The first room has a member of the public playing the role of a ‘teacher’ and an actor in a lab coat with a clipboard, the ‘experimenter’. The other room has a second actor strapped to an electric chair, the ‘learner’. The member of the public is not aware they are the only true subject of the experiment and is led to believe the ‘learner’ is also a volunteer.

The ‘teacher’ must ask the ‘learner’ a series of questions. Each time there is a wrong answer he is to shock the learner with increasing voltage up to (danger — severe shock). The learner imitates the effect of the shocks for dramatic effect. The ‘teacher’ becomes aware of how much pain is being administered to the ‘learner’ (answering incorrectly on purpose). When the ‘teacher’ refuses to continue to shock the ‘learner’, the ‘experimenter’ orders them to continue.” [ii]

The outcome of this experiment was two-thirds of the ‘teachers’, the members of the good and innocent public, continued to administer shocks all the way up to the ‘danger — severe shock’ level, regardless of how much pain the ‘learner’ was experiencing at the orders of ‘experimenter’. This experiment was repeated in various environments with similar results — blind submission to perceived authority.

4. Absolute power corrupts absolutely

The infamous Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo of Stamford University places students with assigned roles as guards or prisoners for a planned two-week experiment. [iii] The study was stopped after six days as the guards had become so brutal there were safeguarding concerns for the prisoners. This study demonstrates how quickly a group’s values can deteriorate if left unchecked (regardless of intellect, wealth or background). The guards were handed total control of the prisoners, had no one to hold them to account, their allocated roles exposed repressed behaviours and they did not act to prevent each other from abusing their power.

So, how and where can these themes manifest themselves in organisations in contact with children? Abuse of power occurs when four circumstances arise:

  1. An organisation, group or individual holds a position of total control over another.
  2. The chain of command does not hold its people to account.
  3. Psychological trauma or a change in the environment unchecks repressed behaviours.
  4. Those in a position to intervene do not or cannot act.


What can we do to prevent the abuse of power within our organisations? First, we must ensure all our people are educated in our shared positive values and standards of behaviour and performance. Second, we must hold our people to account for their actions and those of their subordinates. Third, we must demand that our people intervene when needed and provide them with the means to do so. Fourth, we must identify where power could be abused and introduce measures to prevent it.

[i] Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[ii] Milgram, S. (1974), Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, London: Tavistock Publications.

[iii] Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P.G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology.

About the author

William Harris, Child Safeguarding Network Manager, is a former Captain from the British Army. He possesses great experience in leading and training large teams of soldiers from around the world and delivering peacekeeping operations. As part of his roles, he was responsible for implementing safeguarding measures and mentoring junior leaders in their safeguarding of people in vulnerable circumstances, including conflicts and crises. He has most recently been the lead on the project with the UK Department for International Development. This has seen him work with their largest partners, conducting Enhanced Due Diligence Assessments of their safeguarding standards.


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