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The 1 Thing You Need to Know About How Power Changes You as a Boss

With more power comes less empathy.

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BY Rohini Venkatraman - 09 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Science and history have shown that people who focus on others--those who are emotionally intelligent and generous--are the ones who typically rise to power. You might wonder then, why are there so many stories of leaders who abuse their power through corruption or abuse? There's a scientific reason for this.

A study by UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and colleagues found that when people gain power, they become less empathetic to those they lead, even if they were highly empathetic and generous to begin with. According to the researchers, this is because once we perceive ourselves to have power and privilege, we don't need to depend as much on others, so the neural networks for empathy shut down. By knowing this, however, we can do something about it. Here are three simple methods to continue to show empathy once you're a leader.

1. Sit with your team.

Hubspot, a digital marketing company, has experimented frequently and broadly with company seating arrangements. According to a report to the Wall Street Journal, the company found that when executives were seated apart from employees, feedback was negative. Employees felt that the leadership team was too far removed. The company reversed this set-up after six months, so that all employees were interspersed, regardless of role and title.

By sitting with your employees, you will be able to better experience the day-to-day of your employees. It will give you a better pulse on employee needs. As employees recognize your involvement and dedication, they will also see you as more approachable, enabling honest and transparent communication.

2. Ask for feedback from your team.

According to over one million responses to the Leadership Practices Inventory, a behavioral assessment conducted by the Harvard Business Review, the lowest descriptor of leaders revolves around their asking for feedback: "(He or she) asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people's performance." However, leaders who ask for feedback are seen as having higher leadership ability, according to Joseph Folkman, founder of Novations and Zenger Folkman, two leadership development firms. As a financial services vice president described to the Harvard Business Review, when leaders put themselves in a vulnerable position and ask for feedback, they create an environment of personal risk-taking and personal growth.

When employees observe your asking for (and acting on) honest feedback, you gain their trust and transform feedback from being perceived as an authoritative criticism to a two-way conversation.

3. Admit when you mess up.

According to author and former Medtronic CEO Bill George, humility is an essential quality of authentic leaders. He describes his own leadership experience through which he learned that in admitting his mistakes to his employees, he created an open platform for others to do the same. He writes on his blog how, through his experience, he found that it's vulnerability, not trying to appear invulnerable, that gives you power. His openness helped him gain people's confidence and trust in his leadership, which in turn increased people's desire to collaborate with him.

To err is human, and to admit it is good leadership. Be open with your team when things go wrong and reflect with them on what you learned from it. In doing so, you will connect with your employees and inspire them to share their failures and learnings when those situations arise.

Even if you are a highly empathetic individual, you are prone to lose your empathy as you build your career in leadership. It's science. But you're not doomed. By recognizing this reality and kicking your empathy into overdrive, you can make your bond with employees stronger even as your neural network for empathy weakens.


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