How Leadership Affects Your Level of Empathy

Posted: September 27, 2012 in Daily Life, Other
Tags: , , , , ,

At the beginning of a busy day, you’re called to the boss’s office. As you walk down the corridor to reach the corner office, you feel like a high school student being summoned to visit the principal. The manager is sitting at his desk in the strangely dark room, waiting for you to explain why you were late this week. As you stumble through your response, it occurs to you that the man across from you has control over your position in the company, your career, and by association, a significant portion of your life. Fueled by indignation, thoughts about the injustice of the workplace well up inside of you. You’ve read the Psychopath Test; you know that people that lack compassion reach the upper echelons of society. This fat cat probably cheated his way into his position, propelled up the ladder by cutthroat blindsides and merciless takedowns of anyone who got in his way. That’s how you get to the top, right?

Photo credit
His plans for improving the fourth quarter include eliminating lunch breaks and non-work-related conversations.

Well, not exactly. Joanthan Lehrer with the Wall Street Journal points to research that suggests that unlike the stereotype of the unfeeling misanthrope that rules the office with an iron first, most of the time leadership is given to people who behave nicely. Leaders in social hierarchies tend to rate highly on scales measuring extraversion and agreeableness–the traits that you would want in a friend. In fact, psychologists have found that the members who spread gossip and engage in other negative behaviors are isolated from the group before they can inflict more damage, not given more power to wield.

So why do we think of people in power as compassionless dictators who no longer care about the little guy?

Although the stereotype of the dictator drunk on authority may go to the extreme, the concept of a leader losing touch with his employees isn’t without merit. As the old saying goes, success changes people. People in positions of authority become less sympathetic to the needs of others, often relying on stereotypes and generalizations to get them through the day. One researcher compared people in power to patients suffering from brain damage to the orbito-frontal lobe, the portion of the brain vital to empathy. Consistently, power makes it easier for us to avoid viewing the world through the eyes of others.

In one experiment Lehrer mentions, researchers at Northwestern University asked participants to focus on a time that they felt powerless or a time that they felt powerful. They then asked them to draw the letter “E” on their foreheads. The participants who were asked to describe a time that they felt powerful were more likely to draw the letter backward from the perspective of the person looking at them, suggesting that just focusing on a time of power encouraged some participants to stop considering the viewpoint of others.

Have you ever noticed yourself becoming less sympathetic when you were placed in charge of something?

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Staffan says:

    I’d take that research with a pinch of salt. While self-rated personality tests are reasonably accurate on the average you have to ask yourself if a real machiavellist would fill in such a form truthfully. There is also the fact that the Big Five model that this research is based on don’t even cover things like machiavellism.

    If you suspect your boss lacks empathy you can always pop a balloon in his face. Psychopaths have a weak startle reaction to that. Unfakeable.

    • True, there is always doubt for personality surveys. It’s impossible to know if people are filling them out honestly. I don’t doubt that there are Machiavellian personalities out there in leadership roles, but I do think that power must affect the way people with average levels of empathy perceive their employees/subordinates/citizens.

  2. joem18b says:

    I remember the first time they did that test. Instead of an E, they used an O.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s