Why bosses lose empathy as they advance

Getting promoted can be a double-edged sword.
Getting promoted can be a double-edged sword.
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
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We’ve all had experiences with an insensitive boss. Those who occupy positions of power, despite their early acumen at a younger age, now seem to have completely lost their ability to understand others around them. They can no longer empathize.

Psychologists have long observed that high-power individuals tend to be less sensitive to the emotions of others than those with low power. They are less willing to consider others’ perspectives. They are less able to accurately infer others’ emotions.

We know this in part because of a series of experiments led by Michael Kraus, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in which subjects were asked to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions were being expressed. Using education attainment—high school versus college—as a proxy that correlates with income, occupational prestige, and material wealth, the researchers found that the more privileged the judges were, the less able they were to accurately identify emotions in pictures. Powerful people, in other words, have worse facial-recognition abilities.

That bias also was present in simulated job interviews. During a role play, subjects were asked to estimate the emotions of the experimenter, who had acted out a range of moods, including amusement, anger, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, happiness, jealousy, surprise, and worry. Again, upper-class participants had a harder time reading the emotions of strangers. It wasn’t that they didn’t pay attention: They were simply less in-tune with their fellow human beings.

Mirror, mirror in the brain

Alarmingly, such behaviors don’t appear to be a psychological choice. Rather, they’re rooted in neurology, deep inside our brain, where the activities can only be revealed under the probe of an MRI scanner.

The reason the human brain has the capacity to be exquisitely attuned to others is because of the “mirror system.” This is a group of specialized neurons that “mirror” the actions and behavior of others. They fire up the same way when you watch someone do something as when you do it yourself. That’s how the mirror system lets us feel the actions we see—i.e., to empathize.

If you’re skeptical about the influence of this tiny group of neurons located in the inferior premotor cortex of the brain, think about the magic of the World Cup. Each foul, goal, penalty kick, and counter-attack on the field fires up the mirror neurons that make you and the other 40,000 spectators all share the same feeling. Onlookers become connected to one game. We become emotionally involved in something that we aren’t physically doing. The intensity, the physical exhaustion, and the thrill of each player on the field are all so vivid, even if we’re sitting in a sports bar hundreds of miles away from the stadium. Emotional access is the foundation of solidarity.

However, this powerful physiology of empathy is extremely fragile.

In another experiment, two neuroscientists essentially manipulated this system by assigning subjects the feeling of being either powerful or powerless. The trick was straightforward: Subjects were randomly assigned to write either about a time they were wholly dependent on others for help (the feeling of being powerless) or in absolute control of a situation (the feeling of being powerful). The two groups—powerless and powerful—then watched an incredibly boring video of a hand squeezing a rubber ball, while the scientists monitored the activity of their mirror neurons.

You guessed it: Powerlessness boosts the mirror system, but power dampens it. In other words, the brains of powerful people did not mirror the actions of other people. The more power that people expressed in their individual essays, the less their brains resonated. “Power,” the scientists concluded, “changes how the brain itself responds to others.”

The rich don’t get how the other half lives

Intuitively, we all understand this. People of lower status, who are unable to easily hire others to solve their problems, might have to rely on neighbors or relatives for things like a ride to work or childcare. They are forced to develop advanced social skills to build up goodwill.

Powerful people, on the other hand, may believe they are less dependent on others. And they often don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources. They also tend to be busy, and perhaps have less time to pay attention to social cues from the less powerful around them.

The problem is that when people rise in power and status, they start to literally lose touch with the reality of others. They transgress social norms without even knowing it. They often sour relationships and make enemies unwittingly. And their fall, if it comes, is often seeded in their previous ascendency.

The good news is, while scientists are finding that power diminishes all varieties of empathy, powerful people can be coached back to their compassionate selves. One approach, paradoxically, is to have mean bosses study an even more influential leader.

In another experiment Kraus conducted, where he asked his subjects to identify emotions from different pictures, he added an interesting twist: He re-anchored the subjects. He presented an image of a ladder with 10 rungs “representing where people stand in the United States.” Then, he asked the participants to compare themselves “to the people at the very bottom [top] of the ladder. These are people who are the worst [best] off—those who have the least [most] money, least [most] education, and the least [most] respected jobs.”

“In particular, we’d like you to think about how you are different from these people in terms of your own income, educational history, and job status. Where would you place yourself on this ladder relative to the people at the very top?”

What Kraus did was to force people to rank themselves against the wealthiest, most powerful Americans, thus diminishing their own sense of importance. When asked to identify others’ emotions by looking at 36 sets of expressive eyes, the upper-class peers who received the intervention did markedly better than those who didn’t. They regained their sense of proportion and thus immediately became more attuned to their fellow citizens.

That’s why reading autobiographies have great benefits. Not only do you get to learn about what an individual has been through and, more often than not, gain knowledge regarding how to act in specific circumstances and deal with difficult stages of life. But the great personalities we read are more than just virtual mentors or role models who widen our range of thought. Simply seeing how other people have achieved more than we have primes us to listen and read our own surroundings more carefully. The sense of proportion humbles us. We become more attuned to our fellow human beings. In short, we are rewired to listen.

Howard Yu is the LEGO professor of management and innovation at the Institute for Management Development (IMD).