How empathy can enhance your power

How empathy can enhance your power

Words: Laura Engstrøm

Illustrations: Flemming Dupont

Image description Image description

It’s official: power is a drug. But just because it feels good doesn’t mean it helps. Leaders who learn to resist the effects of power can achieve more with it – and have a better chance of keeping it. The key? Empathy.

Key takeaway

  • Scientists believe that power dampens the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’, responsible for empathy. But empathy is what makes leaders more effective.

Dacher Keltner was aware of all the traps. The renowned psychology professor and his lab colleagues at UC Berkeley had spent the past decade describing how power affects our brains and behaviour. They had conducted research and written paper after paper. They had collected neurological data from numerous universities to demonstrate the impact.

“Power feels good, but causes us to become narrow-minded, selfish and unable to read a room”

In Keltner’s own book The power paradox, the conclusion is clear: power is a drug. It changes our brains. It gives us a big boost of dopamine, which feels good, but also causes us to become narrow-minded, egoistic, selfish and unable to read a room. The professor felt it himself: “It’s a little embarrassing, but as you rise in prestige and power, you tend to swear a little more, you say things about other people that are inappropriate. I was humbled by these findings, and I think that I learned a couple of things. My civility and kindness matters to other people, so I try to be a model of civil behaviour. But yes, I do feel it,” says Keltner over the phone from San Francisco. He’s not the only one. Power just gets to us.

Power to influence

Keltner defines power as the ability “to influence others”. The more we’re able to influence those around us, the more power we have. And power affects all our relationships, whether they are political, economical, social, physical, mental or psychological. From the power your boss holds over you, to power struggles in your relationship.

The more power you have, the more likely you are to lose your empathy for others. This was shown in 2013 by the neuroscientist Sukhviner Obhi at Canada’s McMaster University. He divided 45 college students into three groups and observed their brain activity when asked to recall an incident where they felt they had power, where someone had power over them, or neither. Students who were primed to recall an incident where they had power, showed less activity in the part of the brain associated with so-called mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons have been called the cornerstone of empathy. They’ve been recognised since the 1990s, when Italian scientists did a study on monkey’s brains. They looked at brain activity when the monkey’s performed an action, and when they watched other monkeys do the same thing. The activity in the frontal lobe of the brain was almost the same, they found. This is believed to be true of humans too. In other words: we mirror each other. When we see others cry, laugh, or fall over, we experience something like what we feel when it happens to ourselves.

Professor Sukhviner Obhi and his team concluded, then, that power changes how the brain responds to others.

Rude bosses

Obhi’s study is not the only one showing that power has an impact on us. In a 2006 study at Kellogg University in Chicago, a number of people were asked to draw the letter E on their forehead for a person in front to read. Most of the powerful people wrote the E from their own perspective, difficult for the other person to read. Conclusion: powerful people don’t seem to see the other’s view. The same university made a study showing that power can inhibit the ability to perceive another person’s emotional states. Participants were shown a set of 24 images of faces expressing either happiness, sadness, fear, or anger. For each image, the participants were asked to guess which emotion was being expressed. Participants who’d been primed to feel powerful made more errors in judging the expressions than those who hadn’t been primed.

These forces are believed to have an influence over how different people behave in workplaces. Over the past 14 years, Professor Christine Porath and her team at Georgetown University in Washington DC have examined 14,000 workers in the US and Canada about how they feel treated at work. Ninety-eight per cent of them reported uncivil behaviour such as rude messages, yelling, exclusion or even sexual harassment.

”Unchecked rudeness is surprisingly common,” Porath writes in a Harvard Business Review article co-authored with Professor Christine Pearson.

“Managers are more likely to swear than ordinary workers. Well-to-do teenagers are more likely to get caught shoplifting”

Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner isn’t surprised. “The tendency towards less empathy while holding a powerful position is pretty well established across different studies,” he says. “And why we see such regular abuse of power, especially in the US, is that we have political and economical systems that lead egoistic people to become powerful. When I wrote The power paradox based on my team’s lab studies, our findings were confirmed over and over again. You go outside the office and notice, that managers are more likely to swear than ordinary workers. They have more sexual affairs, and well-to-do teenagers are more likely to get caught shoplifting and cheat.”

The demands of millennials

In the past people might have been more willing to accept these kinds of working conditions. But surveys by the management consultancy Deloitte suggest that younger generations have different demands when it comes to their bosses. They don’t only want an understanding boss, they want a boss who shows empathy and humbleness.

Michael Tolstrup, a Danish economist specialised in coaching leaders working in global corporations, also noticed the different demands. “There’s a huge change in the perception of a leader,” he says. “Previously, the prototype of a leader, the fearless manager who’s willing to take huge risks, prevailed. Now we see a different type of leader emerging. Leaders who are open about their doubts.”

It is a shift that Dewi Dylander is already seeing in the workplace. She is the deputy executive director at the Danish pension fund PKA and recognises employees changing needs. “One of our very talented young employees came to me with a personal problem. We agreed to hire a coach to help her. Even though it costs a fortune,” Dylander says, adding that it’s always a dilemma whether a personal problem should be dealt with at the workplace’s expense.

Dacher Keltner has also noted a change: “I’ve been teaching this for about 25 years, and back then people were like: who’s this weird guy talking about compassion and empathy making teams effective? But it’s changing. In the medical company Kaiser Permanente, they’ve implemented ‘no-asshole’ rules – you can’t shout, and you should act at work like a polite human being.”

One of the reasons for looking for a new type of leaders, might be that leaders are as good as their teams. No team building without compassion and empathy. And teams are what most of us work in nowadays.

“Compared to 50 years ago, our work is much more collaborative. Just think of it; to produce a patent, you need a team of 10 people to get it done, so work is more interdependent. Your best work as a leader is the best work of your team,” Keltner adds.

There are exceptions

And here come the two exceptions to the tendency of power abuse: It turns out that women are less likely to become the boss you want to avoid.

“There are broad analyses of what women do when they are in positions of management. Women tend to be a little more pro-social and a little more empathetic. They are less likely to act in selfish, egoistic, greedy ways, “ Keltner says.

“If really kind people get a lot of power, they become kinder. But kind people don’t seem to seek power”

Dacher Keltner

Asked whether she has experienced the traps of power and lack of empathy, Dewi Dylander laughs. “That’s not for me to answer! But I try to be a good listener”, she says.

There’s another exception too, says Keltner. “If you have really kind people and they get a lot of power, they become kinder. Power unleashes your basic tendencies. But unfortunately kind people don’t seem to seek power.”

And that’s the power paradox. The very skills that took you to the top; being nice, trustworthy and good at your job, will eventually disappear when the intoxicating dopamine rush of power sets in. Unless you’re kind – or aware of how your brain is triggered. As Keltner says:  “Remembering your humanity is what will keep you in power in the end.”

Tips to avoid the power trap

  • Be aware of your feelings of power.
  • Practice humility: to influence others is a privilege; to have power is humbling. Don’t be impressed by your own work, stay critical of it. Accept and encourage the scepticism and the push back of others with an open mind, and encourage it. Remember that others have enabled you to make a difference in the world. There is always more work to do.
  • Stay focused on others, and give. The more we empower others, the more the greater good is enhanced.
  • Practice respect. Ask questions. Listen with intent. Be curious about others. Acknowledge them. Compliment and praise with gusto. Express gratitude.
  • Change the psychological context of powerlessness – through every day acts and quiet revolutions.

Source: The power paradox by Dacher Keltner