Have you ever looked at a leader in power and thought: ‘I would be so different if I was in their position’?
Have you ever caught yourself thinking ‘I will never treat people that poorly’, convinced that you will remember what it was like further down the organisation and do everything you can to make people at that level’s lives better, not worse.
Have you ever thought anything like that? I know I have.
Until I was in one of ‘those’ positions.
And then I found out how hard it is. It shocked me that even though I believed I was ‘all about the people’ it was actually really hard to remain truly tuned in to all levels of the organisation. To remember what it was like. To not start thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
We can have the best intentions in the world to stay grounded and somehow we still end up feeling a little removed. Removed from the rest of the business, from the people we lead… and often from ourselves.
I thought it was just me. But now I know this can happen to anyone.
It turns out, power does corrupt. And not because we are weak or our ego leads us to be selfish (although that can certainly happen too).
Power actually causes brain damage
Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, is a psychology professor at UC Berkeley (and was a consultant on Pixar’s Inside Out), who has spent over two decades studying people under the influence of power. What he discovered during this research is shocking.
People in power act as if they have suffered a traumatic brain injury. They become:
and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
In his article Power Causes Brain Damage, Jeremy Useem outlines the findings of Sukhvinder Obhi: “a neuroscientist at McMaster University who, when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process called mirroring that may be a cornerstone of empathy.” This research provides a neurological basis to Keltner’s behaviour-focused power paradox.
Whilst, as Keltner writes, it’s actually those who ‘demonstrate empathy and enthusiasm who solve other people’s problems and further the greater good’ who tend to gain power – that’s not what we are consistently seeing at the top of our organisations – or political system for that matter.
Put simply – once we have obtained power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to get that power in the first place – the human touch.
So, what changes? Why would our brain adapt in this way?
Research indicates that power primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. It’s our brain’s way of making us more efficient.
It’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?
Warning signs that power has gone to your head
The research notes that powerful people:
stop simulating the experience of others which leads to what Keltner calls an empathy deficit.
are less able to make out people’s individuating traits.
rely more heavily on stereotypes and subsequently rely more on their personal ‘vision’ for navigation
And these changes are not restricted to our professional life. Powerful people are also more likely to:
argue that it is justifiable for them to break rules others should follow.
What can we do about it?
It’s actually difficult to stop power’s ability to affect our brain.
We have to consciously stop feeling powerful. Power, is after all, a mental state, so we have a choice about how we perceive our power.
Keltner suggests recounting a time when we did not feel powerful, to help the brain re-experience it– and the more ‘searing’ that experience, the more likely it is to provide a sort of ‘permanent protection’.
Power is ultimately a choice. We can choose to perceive our power in a way that is useful and constructive. And we can choose how we define our success in any given position, at any level of hierarchy.
Take a moment to reflect on those around you, and on yourself – where can you see power ‘damage’ playing out and what are choosing to do about it?