It turns out that people lose their empathy once they assume a position of power. (Who’d thought?!) This isn’t just based on hunch, or some social/psychological research findings. A recently published neuroscience study demonstrates such a link in one’s brain (http://www.npr.org/2013/08/10/210686255/a-sense-of-power-can-do-a-number-on-your-brain.) It’s hard to quarrel with physical evidence.
By and large, I seem to be critical of managers; they bear more responsibilities, and therefore need to be judged on higher standards. In a few cases, though, I offer some sympathy. When a person moves into a position of power, she finds herself inundated with at least 10-fold more information than she used to have in her pre-managerial status.
Once an empathetic person, now in a managerial position, his “old” empathy is a channel for constant noise. All of a sudden, a newly minted manager can’t afford to care about the family saga, promotional angst, dating horror stories, vacation tidbits from just a few favored colleagues. He has to attend to the needs, wants, and desires of dozens of staff members.
While a manager may be able to take some time to grasp personnel issues and decisions, she often has to make quick decisions on operations, with or without enough data. And these decisions inevitably impact people’s office lives and/or personal lives, and some staff members are always going to feel slighted.
In response to the neuroscience study by Obhi, et al, Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, said, “Power diminishes all varieties of empathy.”
To some extend, empathy lies in the eyes of beholders. Not all managers are equal in their diminished empathy. And just because someone may not strike us as particularly empathetic doesn’t mean he cannot be a wise manager who allows staff to make occasional mistakes and to grow. Being in a position of power does not necessarily mean the person uses the power to control others, or to control others frequently. There is a difference between “control of people” and “control of situation.”
Manipulating people to do certain things isn’t the same as manipulating the situation/system in order to facilitate smoother operations or better outcomes. There is never a shortage of power-hungry people, but once in a while, there are a few managers who use power only when necessary, or use it to better their staffs’ work lives.
On the fifth hand, the neuroscience study might explain why the top level of managers seems so clueless. Perhaps, the higher one moves up, the longer one is deprived of empathy, and ultimately one becomes insulated and clueless regarding the lives of “the others.” Solution: Managers should be moved out of managerial positions (not as penalty) or to lower managerial positions (also not as a penalty) every so often.
I like to read readers’ responses to some articles. For this article, one reader suggested that perhaps this explains why women in management are generally regarded as more empathetic than men since women have typically been in less powerful positions. Intriguing. Maybe that’s why it’s all the more disquieting whenever a female moving into a managerial position suddenly seems to become nasty?
What’s your view on this? Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.