A friend shared an interesting article with me a few weeks ago. The article appears in the current issue of the Atlantic and presents research from the fields of neurology and psychology that shows that we ‘lose mental capacities’ as we gain or access positions of power. Specifically, powerful leaders exhibit reduced empathy and read people less effectively than than they had been able to in less powerful positions. Ironically, in a relationship UC-Berkley professor Dacher Keltner refers to as the ‘power paradox’, as an individual gains and exercises power they ‘lose some of the capacities needed to gain it in the first place’.
The article is fascinating and I recommend it. Here are some highlights:
Dr. Keltner comments that powerful individuals ‘acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.’
Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi reports that neurological studies indicate that increased access to power ‘impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.’
Why might this happen? Psychology professor Susan Fiske asserts that ‘power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others.’
To personalize this, I have a a couple of thoughts.
First, the temptation in reading this article would be to assume we are referring to an immense level of power that is reached by a select few, such as large corporation CEOs or high-level government officials or the Kardashians, Jay-Z, and Beyonce. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The article reports that subjects exhibit this behavior in controlled experiments even when the power is modest and temporary. (A famous example that supports this is the Stanford Prison Experiment originally conducted in 1971 which illustrated the effects of perceived power.)
This means many more of us might be subject to this effect and in more ways than we might be comfortable to consider. I am a very mild-mannered, mid-to-low level project lead in a large organization and I have many, many bosses. I would love to assume that, because my degree of power is relatively low, I may be immune. But I need to look closer.
Thinking back to cases where I was leading a meeting or distributing guidance at work late in the day, I realized if there was not a ‘mental reset’ or decompression period, when I went home I sometimes, inadvertently, spoke to my wife in that same business-like tone and manner. This is a very bad idea, I learned. Fortunately, I have a patient wife (and also long-suffering, obviously). But, if I flip that around, it also means I had potentially slipped into this authoritative mode that exhibits less empathy and listening in those meetings. Sometimes a sense of urgency is necessary due to high-priority or time-sensitive business concerns. But, I believe there is significant risk there. And not just to my mental welfare, but to the health of my entire team. If this shift to ‘power mode’ happens too often, or even becomes a default operating approach, work relationships will eventually feature less trust, team communication systems will suffer, and eventually the performance ceiling of the whole team or organization will decrease. This is ‘poisons my whole system’ stuff.
Two, recognizing that a leader can command what they want or need out of authority and also leaders are often burdened with responsibilities that necessitate long hours and efficient time management, the result reported makes logical sense. One might dispense with empathy when we don’t need it anymore to reach our goals and no longer have time to dedicate to it. So, it is an efficiency-driven time management proposition at that point that in many ways is logical. But I think there is potentially another, more insidious, cause.
Some leaders adopt power or influence as part of their identity or self-worth. The power, the title, and the privileges are trappings that affirm the individual. The trap we can fall into, even if we don’t consciously think of it this way, is that these professional trappings not only make us feel special but also implicitly make us feel superior to someone who lacks them. At that point, a leader may be contributing less time and energy to empathy or respect to a subordinate simply because the leader doesn’t deem empathy or respect warranted or necessary. The article presents a quote from historian Henry Adams in which he describes power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” I hate to say it, but in some cases the underlying problem may be arrogance or pride that reveals poor moral character, perhaps as a result of the corruption of power.
When I was growing up, my Dad frequently quoted 2 criteria to discern character. One is that character is revealed by what you do when no one is looking. The second is that character is revealed in how you treat someone who can offer nothing in return. When we work with subordinates from a position of superior power, by definition we are interacting with people who cannot offer equal power in return. I understand better what my Dad was saying now – our character is revealed in how we act in that situation. I don’t want to imply I always (or even frequently) meet this challenge. Our character is a quality that is always (and should always be) under construction and this article has helped me understand the challenge in a fuller perspective.
There are a lot of topics in management and leadership that relate to this, so I will follow up there another day.