Try this experiment—think of times in which you felt powerful, such as when you felt very much in control of your life. Now, go take the empathy quiz at this link (you can scroll down past the introduction to take the quiz).
Would you be surprised to know that feeling powerful may turn off our ability to read the emotions of others? Psychologist Dacher Keltner conducted an experiment in which he used the eye test to measure empathy– the ability to connect with what and how other people are both thinking and feeling–after making subjects feel either in a high or a low power state. Those primed to feel more powerful performed significantly worse than those primed to feel humbler.
In another interesting experiment, two groups were asked to either think of times when they held power over another, or when they felt powerless in a situation where someone held power over them. Then they were asked to perform a simple task of writing the letter “E” on their own forehead, so that it would read correctly from the perspective of another person reading it. Those feeling powerful were nearly three times as likely to fail in drawing the “E” with the correct perspective!
The Cure: Servant Leadership
So how do we hold power to make our own lives, and the lives of others, better, without becoming empathetically blind? The key is servant leadership. We practice an attitude of self-confident humility. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is in fact a balance—the confidence comes from developing competency in technical and Soft Power Skills, the humility comes from developing character.
We can develop technical competency in the skill of empathy by practicing and developing four areas:
- Correctly interpreting and responding to the facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language of others
- Physically responding to or mimicking other people’s expressions, gestures, body positions
- Actively engaging our minds when hearing about other people’s experiences
- Taking the perspective of others
Servant leaders develop character by holding power in order to improve others. As author Simon Sinek observes, “Leaders Eat Last.” The image above of National Guard Bureau chief General Grass serving Thanksgiving dinner to deployed troops in Afghanistan symbolizes the concept. Rather than using power to grab the best parking spot, or accrue all the perks to oneself, the first concern of leaders regarding their teams should be nurturing human potential. Doing so doesn’t mean completely subordinating one’s own needs–developing the team ultimately benefits the leader–but it does require a deliberate attitude of humility and concern for others.
Servant leadership guards against the corrupting nature of power, and keeps our eyes open to the needs of others—a simple concept to grasp, a difficult one to master!
P.S. If you’d like to read more about the experiments in the effects of power on human behavior, check out Dr. Keltner’s book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.