Column: How do you initiate a dialogue on (the abuse of) power?

A 2019 survey conducted by the Dutch trade unions showed that four out of ten university employees have experienced abuse of power and intimidation. How is the situation at Radboud University?

As part of their job, our colleagues Anoeska Soedamah, Nancy Viellevoye, Rona Jualla-van Oudenhoven and Heleen Kloosterhuis engage in dialogue around these issues on a daily basis. They talk to students, employees, each other, and the organisation. In this weekly column, they share their experiences, based on the practice of ‘the good conversation'. 

Anoeshka Soedamah

The perspective of Anoeshka Soedamah (Campus Psychologist)

As a campus psychologist, I can tell you (and maybe this won't surprise you) that power abuse also takes place at Radboud University. In my practice, people frequently talk about it. For example about being forced to work in their free time, not being involved in decision-making, or being afraid of one of their superiors. It is all happening right here.

Unfortunately, abuse of power is not a problem that we can solve overnight. What we can do is bring attention to it, to raise awareness and break the taboo. We are often busy with organisational changes, collaboration within teams, reorganisations of departments and buildings. I would suggest expanding these themes to bring even more focus on safety. So, if you feel unsafe, or, and this is just as uncomfortable, if you feel that you may be contributing to people feeling unsafe, talk about it within the social street on campus, and find out how YOU can contribute to social safety.

Nancy Viellevoije-Geers

The perspective of Nancy Viellevoye (Ombudsperson)

As a staff ombudsperson, I see how power can be used in a negative, but also in a positive way. An organisation cannot function without a hierarchical structure, with some people having more say than others. The ideal situation, where everyone is heard and agrees with each other, is unfortunately rare. Power in and of itself is not a problem: it is about how it is used.

How do you recognise abuse of power? It is characterised by using privileges to serve your own interests rather than those of the collective, protecting your own position by sharing information selectively, or deciding for others what is ‘normal'.

Exposing abuse of power is part and parcel of a learning organisation, and I see it as one of the goals of my still new position. But I cannot do it alone: this is something we will have to create together. It requires courage to speak up in a system that you are part of or depend on. And yet, I want to invite everyone, employees and supervisors alike, to do so. Speak up!

Rona Jualla-van Oudenhoven

The perspective of Rona Jualla-van Oudenhoven (Diversity Officer)

As a diversity officer, I encounter power dynamics every day. I witnessed at close quarters how misuse of power affects people: they feel negated, inferior, a lesser version of themselves. That is the power of power. At the same time, I also see how much influence people can have once they are given a voice and a podium to tell the truth. It can be incredibly empowering! Sometimes it's a question of choice: on which side of the power coin do we want to position ourselves?

Heleen Kloosterhuis

The perspective of Heleen Kloosterhuis (Confidential Advisor)

I have worked as a confidential advisor at Radboud University for seven years now, and I can say from my own experience that things are changing. Just a few years ago, we only had three confidential advisors for the entire university. Now we have a team of eleven confidential advisors!

Would you like to talk to one of us about abuse of power? Don't hesitate to contact us on inclusion [at] ru.nl, campuspsycholoog [at] ru.nl, vertrouwenspersonen [at] ru.nl or ombudsfunctionaris [at] ru.nl.

Written by
Jualla-van Oudenhoven, R. (Rona) Soedamah, A. (Anoeshka) Kloosterhuis, H.H. (Heleen) Viellevoije-Geers, N.A. (Nancy)
This column is the first in a series of columns on social safety. Regularly, a new column will appear in the weekly news.