The Curious Relationship Between Power and Empathy

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Power Corrupts

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.

An important Soft Power Skill is the ability to read emotions of others in their expressions, gestures, or body language.

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!

People primed to feel more powerful were three times more likely to fail to draw an “E” from the perspective of another person (as in the figure on the left).

The Cure: Servant Leadership

Gen Grass Serving Food
The chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass, and his senior enlisted advisor, serve turkey to soldiers in Afghanistan on Nov. 26, 2015. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill/Released)

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.

Popular leadership author Simon Sinek stresses the key role of humility in effective leadership. You can see his TED talk on the subject below.

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.

Professor Keltner’s work discusses the paradox that “the very practices that enable us to rise in power vanish in our experience of power.”


Bird _circle2Copyright © 2018 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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