Power warps a leader’s brain – here’s how to fight back
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Power warps a leader’s brain – here’s how to fight back

The old saying holds that “power corrupts.” But what if that weren’t completely accurate? What if a better way of putting it were “power makes you blind”?

The latter is actually what modern neuroscience tells us – and this fact has huge implications for leaders and managers of organizations.

The science comes to us from two noteworthy sets of experiments carried out over the past couple of decades.

One of these studies was done by researchers at NYU, Northwestern and Stanford. They primed a group of volunteers to feel powerful, while leaving another control group of volunteers alone. The researchers found that those in the “primed” group were much less able to understand oral and written expressions of emotion from other people. They also were less effective at correctly interpreting facial expressions.

What does this mean for leaders? When you gain a degree of power – it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or absolute – something fundamental changes in your brain. You lose social abilities that are key to understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. Obviously, the “blind spots” that result from this pernicious process can defeat your efforts to lead effectively.

Reduced sensitivity

The other study came from two Canadian universities, Wilfred Laurier and Toronto. Researchers there found that “motor resonance” circuits – which guide our brains to respond empathically to others – shut down in the brains of the powerful. The study concluded that “the effect of high power appears to be reduced interpersonal sensitivity.”

None of us is immune from the blinding effects of power. So it’s incumbent upon every leader to self-evaluate. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Has acquiring power eroded my ability to actively listen to people?
  • Am I able to grasp not just people’s words but the facial expressions and body language that reveal what they really mean?
  • Do I feel emotionally close or emotionally distant from those I lead?

If you answer Yes to any or all of these questions, don’t despair. There are techniques that can counteract power-induced emotional blindness.

Three remedies

1. Show vulnerability.

Because you’re in a power position, people may think you know everything and never experience doubt. So, they show you little emotion and deprive you of critical information that you need to know. Show them you’re human. Admit you make mistakes, have blind spots and sometimes need help. If you open yourself up to your people, they’ll open up to you and speak more freely and honestly.

2. Have routine “level-with-me” conversations.

Have routine “level-with-me” conversations with a handful of trusted colleagues. Ask them if they see blind spots in your decision-making. But don’t just do it when there’s a specific problem. Establish these conversations as a norm so people feel more at ease discussing any issues they might see. Caution: Never become defensive or upset if you hear something you don’t like. You’ll destroy connections with your trusted colleagues if you react negatively to what they say.

3. Always listen for subtext.

Too often, instead of telling the truth, your team members will tell you what they think you want to hear. Emotionally unaware leaders listen only to the words people say and get misled. Emotionally aware leaders listen with all their senses, picking up on emotional cues that are conveyed through body language, voice tone and facial expressions.

To sum up, the research suggests that people in positions of power are susceptible to bad decisions when they lose the ability to read emotional cues and gather the insights those emotions convey.

The solution: Awareness. Go out of your way to establish and maintain emotional connections with your people.

This blog post is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Power and Emotional Blindness: How It Can Skew Your Thinking.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Galinsky, A. et al. (2006) Power and Perspectives Not Taken. Psychological Science, 12 (12) 1068-1074.

Hogeveen, J. et al. (2014) Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 143 (2) 755-762.

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