Why Some People in Positions of Power Show Signs of Brain Damage

When people gain power, they sometimes lose the ability to empathize with others.
Why Some People in Positions of Power Show Signs of Brain Damage
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When someone becomes successful but stays grounded, people are often pleasantly surprised. But what is it about power, in any of its forms, that makes people less relatable?

It’s not simply intimidation felt by those in the lower ranks. As a series of studies has demonstrated, power changes those who earn it down to the neurological level, as reported in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, spent two decades studying the effects of power and discovered that powerful people exhibit behaviors associated with traumatic brain injury: impulsivity, diminished risk-awareness and a weakened ability to see things from another person’s perspective.

Related: Legendary Leaders Are Inspirational, Empathetic Master Psychologists

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, took his experiment a step farther. He used transcranial magnetic stimulation to compare the brains of powerful people and non-powerful people, and he found that powerful people were less capable of “mirroring” others’ actions, or imagining themselves mimicking the actions of others. When they watched a video of someone squeezing a rubber ball, the neural pathways that normally would have been firing if they had been squeezing the ball themselves did not light up strongly. In other words, they were less empathetic than the non-powerful group, whose corresponding neurons fired away.

This phenomenon goes beyond imagination. Research led by Adam Galinsky at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management revealed that when instructed to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to read, people who perceived themselves as powerful were three times more likely to draw the E facing backwards for their observers.

As Entrepreneur guest writer Brian T. Anderson wrote last April, empathy is among the most top five traits executives must exhibit to be successful. That’s what faculty at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found upon conducting interviews with business leaders around the world.

Empathetic leaders are more likely to guess how their colleagues will interpret what they say or make others feel comfortable by say, laughing when others laugh. Failure to simulate others’ feelings demonstrates what Keltner calls an “empathy deficit.” One idea to help explain this, put forth by Princeton psychology professor Susan T. Fiske, is that leaders do not feel the need to get on someone else’s level, because the power they wield gives them access to information they would otherwise need to obtain by getting a good read on a person.

So what can those in power do to overcome the neurologically damaging, hubris-building potential of being at the top? Simply telling yourself to empathize won’t cut it -- you have find ways to knock yourself down a peg. A February 2016 study in the Journal of Finance found that that CEOs who had lived through a natural disaster that produced a large number of fatalities were less likely to take risks.  

Related: Uber's Woes Teach Us the Cost of a Work Culture Without Empathy

On the day in 2001 that PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi was appointed to the company’s board, her mother asked her to go out and pick up some milk before announcing her big news to the entire family. When she returned, her mother told her, “Leave that damn crown in the garage.” To this day, Nooyi recounts that story to illustrate the importance of staying down to earth, The Atlantic reports.

So for leaders worried about becoming disconnected from reality or employees, customers or even loved ones -- and sustaining brain damage in the process -- remember a time when you weren’t as powerful, or connect with people who aren’t as powerful and empathize with their concerns.

Edition: September 2017

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