Big bad bosses like Elon Musk keep proving “the power paradox”

The crisis of empathy extends even to a specialist in the science of kindness.
The crisis of empathy extends even to a specialist in the science of kindness.
Image: EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo
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Neuroscientist Tania Singer is the world’s foremost empathy researcher, an expert in the science of kindness. She’s also accused of bullying colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

Singer’s brain-imaging work has shown that empathy emerges from a vast cognitive network connecting vision, language, perception, analysis, and interpretation. But mapping brains and controlling one’s own mind are not the same thing. In the lab, Singer was allegedly harsh, intimidating, and controlling, as well as discriminatory against pregnant women, according to an Aug. 8 report by Kai Kupferschmidt in Science.

Singer denies some of the more serious claims levied against her, including the discrimination allegation. But she apologized for her behavior during a 2017 mediation process with her colleagues and volunteered to go on a temporary sabbatical in an effort to ameliorate the problems. (Quartz reached out to Singer for further comment.) She also admitted in a statement to the Washington Post that “stress and strain” had led to friction with her colleagues.

All this sounds pretty ironic. Yet we really shouldn’t be so surprised. Singer’s far from the first scholar to demonstrate a gap between their principles in theory and in practice. “The academic understanding of a concept does not insulate a person from their very human response to a situation,” as psychologist, author, and business strategist Liane Davey tells Quartz. “In my experience, some academics lose sight of the importance of interpersonal relationships while others simply lose control of their behavior in the race to innovate, to create a breakthrough, and to secure funding.” The same tendency applies to lots of other people in powerful positions.

There is some heartening news, however: Society’s willingness to accept bad behavior from superstar jerks seems to be dwindling. Research on power points to to the fact that influence is maintained through cooperation, not intimidation. And the #MeToo movement, which aired the dirty secrets of powerful abusers, may have made people who would have previously kept silent feel more empowered to push back against bullying in general. ”It’s very early days, but I do see less tolerance for people who abuse others either to get ahead or simply to exert their power,” Davey says.

Avital Ronell and sexual harassment

Singer’s case is unfortunately reminiscent of another awkward academic matter that recently came to light. New York University’s Avital Ronell, an internationally acclaimed philosopher, feminist, and literature professor, was suspended after a Title IX investigation found that she had sexually harassed a male doctoral student, Nimrod Reitman, over three years.

Ronell denies the allegations. Reitman is “comparing me to the most egregious examples of predatory behaviors ascribable to Hollywood moguls who habitually go after starlets,” the New York Times (paywall) reports her as saying. Presumably, she’s alluding to the likes of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who now faces criminal charges for forcing women who wanted to work on the big screen into sexual relations. But Reitman argues that Ronell’s disproportionate power as a superstar professor who could impact his future career prospects is precisely why he succumbed to her advances and made no formal accusation during his studies. That’s what starlets said about Weinstein.

Many esteemed scholars defended Ronell against the accusations without knowing much about the matter, including American gender theorist Judith Butler and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. They said the student was motivated by malice and that the professor’s stellar professional reputation made it impossible to believe she did wrong.

In other words, Ronell’s champions maligned the accuser and defended the accused, on the basis of Ronell’s professional power. In that sense, too, her case resembles those of media moguls whose indiscretions were allowed to go unchecked for so long simply because their work was widely admired.

The power paradox

The question all of these matters raise is whether power is fundamentally a corruptive force. Davey says the answer isn’t quite that simple.

“There is fairly new research that power actually causes changes in your brain,” she explains. Power doesn’t necessarily corrupt as much as it does interrupt the brain’s ability to mirror emotions, which results in less empathy. ”Normally, we are keenly aware of the emotional states of those around us. Those given positions of power seem to be less tuned in to the impact of their behavior on those around them, making it easier to persist with harmful or abusive behavior,” Davey notes.

Or, as The Atlantic put it last year, “Power causes brain damage.” Psychological studies show that the ability to connect to others—the very quality that makes leaders so attractive initially—can dwindle with time and as power continues to accumulate. The powerful become increasingly out of touch as they gain stature. They lose sight of what matters to people around them and thus become less insightful and, ultimately, less influential, like Singer, Ronell, and Weinstein.

This is what’s now known as the power paradox. ”[W]e rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths,” explains Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist, in his 2016 book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. To remain powerful, leaders need to wield their strength mindfully.

The out-of-touch Elon Musk

Many leaders fall short of that goal. Take Elon Musk, for example. He is famously charismatic and driven, so much so that Wired recently called him a “science-fiction character.” His talent lies in part in his ability to convince people that the impossible can happen—from driverless cars to terraforming Mars, he relentlessly pursues his goals and gets others to go along, however farfetched his idea.

Yet he also seems to forget what makes people tick. Jeremy Hollman, a former test engineer at Musk’s space exploration endeavor, SpaceX, tells Wired that Musk has a low tolerance for basic facts of human life. “I got married during the lead up to the first ever Falcon 1 launch. Elon did not take that well,” Hollman recounts. ”He did not think that was a good reason for me to be missing. He called me into his cubicle and asked me how much it would cost to change the wedding date. My response was it would cost more money than he had. He didn’t quite get what I was going at because he had quite a bit of money, but I said it would cost me a wife, and you can’t afford that.”

In fact, Musk responded to Hollman’s marriage much like Singer allegedly responded to researchers announcing their pregnancies. Bethany Kok tells Science that Singer screamed at her after learning that Kok was pregnant, calling her a slacker and warning she wasn’t running a charity. Kok miscarried one of her twins a few weeks later and missed a lab meeting. She says, “I got an email from Tania telling me that she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor, that clearly I wasn’t using good judgment, and I was no longer allowed to go to the doctor during work hours.”

Instead of being happy for employees who are living full lives—and understanding when life interferes with work—some bosses want total devotion to their cause, their dreams, the job. Because they’re so motivated by their own goals, they expect everyone to share their passion and punish them when they don’t. For employees, just having an existence beyond work becomes a problem. And ultimately, that kind of job is not sustainable.

This all-consuming mode also creates dangerous situations, with employees trying to please the boss at all costs. Dave Lyons, a former director of engineering at Tesla, Musk’s car company, tells Wired that the founder created “a completely results-oriented culture from the top down… [which] can drive a lot of people to start cutting corners… [and] incentivized dangerous choices.” The people who succeed in that environment are not necessarily those doing great work, but people willing to do what it takes to win Musk’s praise, Lyons says.

Benign bossiness

Davey doesn’t believe it is inevitable for leaders to lose their humanity, however. Powerful people can remain grounded by being aware of the dangers their stature creates. They can cultivate empathy by taking criticism, asking employees for input, and working with coaches on learning to see multiple points of view, she says.

There’s a distinction between leaders who have high standards and those so driven by their goals they just want what they want, the psychologist notes. “Demanding bosses focus on the work. They make it clear what is expected, provide the appropriate time and resources (at least within reason) to get the job done, and ensure the hard work is recognized and rewarded.”

Bullies, on the other hand, make everything personal. “They use people to fulfill their demands without thought of the cost to the individual,” Davey explains. Bad bosses berate and torment those who fall short of their high bar.

The myth of anger

Increasingly, bosses aren’t the only ones articulating standards at work. Employees are are raising the bar as well. Societally, we’re starting to expect more from superstars, demanding they be humane as well as exceptionally accomplished in their fields. With more and more bad bosses being outed, the notion of the talented genius who can’t be bothered with people’s feelings is falling out of fashion, it seems.

Likewise, the myth of anger as inherent to the creative process is being debunked in industries as distinct as entertainment and academia. And cases like those of Singer and Ronell make it evident that abuse of power isn’t a gendered issue. It’s becoming obvious that the effect of power, this heady drug—and the brain damage it causes—is an equal concern.

Still, “the true test” of whether we’ll create a better, kinder society lies in the way institutional authorities handle accusations of abuse, according to Davey. In widely publicized cases, it’s often in a company or institution’s best interest to oust a star player rather than deal with the risk to reputation and revenue. But when the bully in question isn’t as well-known, the choice isn’t as obvious to people in charge. Davey suggests, “Employees will need to keep up the pressure to ensure organizations continue to have meaningful consequences for those who are abusive.”

More broadly, Davey says, Singer’s case is a reminder that expertise doesn’t ensure right action. “This story reminds us that simply understanding that something is important isn’t enough to reliably and consistently produce the behavior,” Davey concludes. “We need to be vigilant about the impact of our behavior on those around us. And those of us with less power need to find ways to provide feedback that counteracts the numbing effects of power.”