This is your brain on power: The inverse relationship between power and empathy

Anecdotally, many of us have observed how those in power can have a diminished sense of other people’s perspectives (in extreme cases, even their existence). A team of scientists from Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada conducted a brain study that confirms power’s inverse relationship with empathy.

Our brains have what is called a “mirror system,” which is activated when we watch someone else take action. In a healthy functioning mirror system, neurons associated with carrying out an action are activated when we witness someone else complete that action; our brain resonates with the other person’s action-taking.

As explained in their findings, the researchers say, “… the balance of the literature suggests that people in positions of power tend to act in a self-interested manner and display reduced interpersonal sensitivity to their powerless counterparts.” They wanted to test this scientifically.

To do so, they “primed” the brains of study participants by asking one group to write an essay about when they felt powerful, and the other group to write about a time they felt powerless. (A control group wrote an essay about their previous days.) Every participant then watched a video of someone squeezing a rubber ball and the scientists monitored wave data in the mirror system part of the brain.

As expected, those who’d “primed” their brains by recalling a time they felt powerful registered lower mirroring activity in their brains. Those who’d primed their brains with a lack of power felt more empathy.

Not all hope is lost for those in charge. Plenty of research suggests that empathy is a muscle and it can be harnessed, trained, developed and improved through greater self-awareness and coaching.

Empathy is, in short, seeing the world through someone else’s experience. It’s a word that can be loaded with touchy feely implications. But at core, it’s nothing more than the ability to take on another person’s perspective of the world. Nurturing empathy is often viewed as far less urgent than, say, improving delegation or team building skills. But how can an executive successfully build a high-functioning team without first standing in the shoes of each team member? And how can a leader delegate without intimately knowing the demands, responsibilities and pressures already on each subordinate, along with their motivations, skills and weaknesses?

Still not convinced empathy is the cornerstone to exceptional leadership? Studies have linked empathy to improved business results including, but not limited to, increased sales, performance of the best managers or product development teams and stronger performance in an ever more diverse workforce.

The opposite, a company led by a disconnected, self-interested leader, not only impairs company-wide success, it also risks higher talent turnover.

As it’s said, with power comes great responsibility. And in today’s rapid results driven and high-pressure economy, that responsibility must include empathy as a priority for leadership and executive training.

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