Power Changes Your Brain
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 relayed some of the feedback, I became angry at his reaction. As many of you know, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because whatever is happening in the room is stepping on your own value system. Initially, 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?” Wow. The I-walked-five-miles-through-the-snow argument.
Power is a fundamental force in life, something infants can recognize as early as 10-months old. For as long as people have formed groups, human relationships have been structured by hierarchy, dominance, status, and control. Power permeates all aspects of our social interactions with friends, loved ones, family members, and co-workers. Indeed many of the problems we struggle with within the workplace – the issues that make work-life arduous and painful, whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee – are problems related to power. Honestly, in my humble opinion, the success of every endeavor depends on how leaders use their power, and whether they can effectively utilize the authority of their roles.
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 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, 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. The research 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 world of psychology, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring happens 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. This is the “power paradox”. It seems that once some of us have power, we lose much of the emotional intelligence we utilized to be in that leadership position in the first place.
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power. “Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a recently published article, “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 for 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.” So it really does afflict the best of us and is definitely a cautionary tale.
Now, I have told you one of the big potential pitfalls that come with leadership. 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 and challenge your thinking. Monitor your mood. Stay connected to the real work your people do day in and day out. Stay out of the ivory tower. Surround yourself with “no” people. Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up. Take failures personally. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the WHY of what you do every day. As one of my favorite coaching clients once asked, “Don’t our people deserve great leaders?”