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Power inhibits empathy

A recent research study by Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht, and Sukhvinder S. Obhi, Power Changes How the Brain Responds To Others, seems to clearly confirm that power blocks empathy.

The setup involved subjects writing one of three sorts of essays: the first group wrote a ‘high power’ essay, where they were asked to “recall a particular incident in which you had power over another individual or individuals”, the second group wrote a nuetral essay about what they had done the previous day, and the third group wrote a “low power” essay, where they were asked to “recall a particular incident in which someone else had power over you”.

The second stage of the research had the subjects shown a movie intended to exploit the ‘mirror system’, the neurons in the brain that light up when watching other people doing something physical, like squeezing a rubber ball (as in this study), or hitting a baseball with a bat, or shuffling a deck of cards. The researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to measure the degree of mirroring going on in the subjects’ brains.

The science is very clear: when we watch others doing something, our brain follows along, and the centers that would be involved in performing the activity light up. This is instrumental in how we learn to do new things. But there is a side effect: you start to empathize with the people you are watching. But the study demonstrated that those that had been primed by thinking about being powerless were more empathetic: their mirror system showed greater empathy than the high power participants.

As the researchers conclude, that despite some limitations in the study,

The main results we report are robust, and strongly suggest that power is negatively related to motor resonance [empathy]. Indeed, anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and seems to look straight through her in meetings. Perhaps the pattern of activity within the motor resonance system that we observed in the present study can begin to explain how these occurrences take place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless, and the tendency for the powerless to expend effort in understanding the powerful.

Greater implications follow from the study, and stand as a warning. All organizations have control structures in their wiring, to coordinate action. Some are command-and-control oriented, in which there is a highly defined hierarchy, while others are based on consensus building rather than authoritarian controls, and a third model is the laissez-faire fast-and-loose work culture that I’ve been writing about a great deal (see The Future Of Work In A Social World, Part 1  and Part 2).

My bet is that leaders in a traditional command-and-control system are unlikely to have empathy with those subordinate to them: the experience of being powerful acts as a barrier to getting into the minds of the less powerful. And the leaders in a fast-and-loose organization — one in which leading is positioned on pull, not push, and based on high levels of autonomy — are much more likely to see themselves in others, because power is expressed differently and is more diffused.

In the new form factor of work, leadership is derived from the ability to inspire others to follow you, to pull them into your vision, and to create a context in which all people can find meaning and purpose. To accomplish that, leaders must remain connected to others through empathy. And power would corrupt that. They will have to rely on regard and trust, instead.