Power changes your brain
17 Sep. 2018

As I sat across the company president in a beautiful conference room the light reflected off of the marble boardroom table. I was there to tell him that things were not well in his company. I had been hired to “take the pulse” of the employees by conducting focus groups. It turns out the fissures in the employee base were deeper than any of us had guessed. He peered at me as he sipped a cup of coffee and picked apart a blueberry muffin. “I’m hoping it’s not all bad,” he stated. I could see the worry etched on his face, after all, this company was his pride and joy – something he had created and nurtured from the ground up. People in the company knew the stories well of how he went without, fighting to make payroll and keep the lights on, sacrificing his personal life and fending off competitors along the way. He was now the leader of a multi-million dollar business that somehow seemed to keep stumbling over its own success.

Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot-button issues. I say hot button because when I heard some of the feedback, I became angry. Often, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because it steps on your own value system. I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different? I don’t see the problem – this is a non-issue to me.”

A Word of Caution

If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career. People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience. But can power actually alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams, metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.

In a study conducted by UC Berkeley psychology professor, Dacher Keltner, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk aware and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Keltner also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark. One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the psychology world, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring goes on in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness. For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized.

Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues. Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling. When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others. Keltner calls this the “power paradox”. It seems that once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain the power in the first place.

Staying Humble

The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power. “Hubris syndrome,” as defined it in a recent article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders. Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable to his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner. You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.”

Now I have told you all of the bad news! So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power? The answer is simple. Stay grounded. Have people who tether you to reality. Stay connected to the real work. Stay out of the ivory tower. Surround yourself with “no” people. Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the “why” of what you do every day.


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