Or, How Power Turns You Into A Jerk – And How To Guard Against It

Stalin power lacking empathyThe higher up the management ladder you get, the less you care about or even notice how other people feel.

Most of us don’t have to search very far in our experience to find examples – but in recent years there has been a growing body of research that backs up our anecdotal experiences.

For example, studies by Professor Dacher Keltner at the University of California at Berkely have found that wealthy people assist others less than poorer people, and that people from poorer backgrounds experience a stronger response in the vagus nerve (which Keltner describes as ‘the nexus of compassion’) than people from higher-income backgrounds.

Other research by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, has found that people primed to feel powerful have less of a tendency to mirror the actions of others in our own neurology (this mirroring or resonance turns out to be an important part of the way we perceive emotions in others, for example – the research paper linked to has a neat summary of previous research on the effects of power on the brain). In another study, he found that power increases the tendency to sexually objectify the opposite gender.

We can speculate about why power makes us care less about the emotions of others: where people holding less power are dependent on people with more power, they will be more strongly motivated to understand them and care about how they are feeling as an aid to influencing them and to predicting their actions. People in high-power roles are less affected by the actions of individuals ‘beneath’ them, so are less motivated to care about them.

To an extent Western corporate and political culture reinforces this empathy gap, valuing decisiveness, goal-orientation and toughness. But there is an obvious downside – if you don’t understand how your people are feeling, it will be harder to motivate them. Plus, people can tell if you don’t value them, so will be less likely to defend you, go the extra mile for you, or even give you the accurate information you need to do your job.

So, the higher you climb, the more you have to guard against empathy loss.

First, here are some warning signs that power may be making you may be less empathetic:

  • Do you demand privileges for yourself?
  • Do you ask your staff to do things that you would not be willing to do yourself?
  • Have you been known to break your promises if no-one is looking?
  • Do you not know the names of people who work for you who you see every day?
  • When you get negative feedback, do you become defensive?

What can you practically do to make sure you don’t lose touch with how your people are thinking and feeling (and, to put it bluntly, make sure you don’t become up yourself)? Here are some ideas:

  • Make a deliberate effort to notice the people who serve you – receptionists, waiting staff, cleaners, interns – and take a moment to consider things from their perspective
  • Stay in touch with people who knew you before you climbed the ladder, or who are outside the orbit of your power – people you knew at school or university, your extended family, people you play sports with, people with shared interests you meet outside of work. They will help you to ‘keep it real’
  • For any significant decision you have to take, run it through the four steps of Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence model and ask yourself the questions in each of the quadrants. This forces you to consider the emotional effects on other people that you might normally be tempted to overlook (this model works for preparing presentations and resolving interpersonal problems too!)
  • Ask for feedback from people you trust to give you their honest opinion
  • Get some formal 360º feedback using a tool such as the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (you will need a wide range of respondents to make this effective)
  • Consider hiring an executive coach to help you refocus on empathy and reconnect with your values

Over to you – let me know what you think in the comments below.

Why You Need To Put More Effort Into Empathy As A Leader
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