The Powerful Can’t Feel Your Pain or Hear Your Perspective

Posted by on Oct 21, 2016 in Communication, Leadership, Self-awareness |

A client recently asked me why powerful leaders often don’t take feedback wehillary-trump_4ll.  A board asked me why their president wanted coaching in conflict management when they felt he needed compassion training. And then there’s our X-rated presidential race.

brain-in-headI saw two studies recently that might give us all something to think about.  Increased power diminishes our ability to be empathetic and compassionate because of its impact on the “mirror system” – how we are able to experience what someone else experiences, according to a Canadian research study.  Amazingly, even a small bit of power shuts down that part of the brain!  Scary stuff!

Another study conducted at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management by Adam Galinsky and his colleagues found that increasing power increases self-assurance and confidence but in a way that makes one prone to dismiss viewpoints of those lacking authority.   As we get more powerful, according to Galinsky, we have increasing difficult in correctly perceiving others’ perspectives.

So power leaves leaders somewhat isolated – stuck in their own perspective of themselves and the world, and unable to feel or see the “plight of the little guy” or even the view from the frontlines.

Maybe that’s why all those leaders on the TV show Undercover Boss see things differently when they go into their companies in disguise.  It’s not just what others are willing to tell them, maybe it’s what they are able to take in when they are even temporarily sitting in a less powerful role.

Empathy, compassion, self-awareness, and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes are all qualities of a mature mind – one that can lead… and lead well.

The good news is that other studies show you can grow these qualities with conscious effort.  That, of course, presupposes that you recognize that you need to grow those characteristics.  If you are willing, then you have to be all ears!  You have put off your mantle of power and seek out and listen to the feedback and perspectives of others.   This is when coaches can be really useful, or honest colleagues, board members, peers, friends, and even your kids.