Is it impossible for a boss to be empathetic?

by Michael Haberman on August 13, 2013 · 0 comments


With power comes a change in brain function that reduces empathy.

With power comes a change in brain function that reduces empathy.

Ever know someone who seemed to be a nice person, a caring person. One day they get promoted to a management position and you are happy. You think “finally we are going to have a good boss around here.” But soon you notice that they are not as nice as you expected them to be and you wonder “Is it impossible for a boss to be empathetic?”

The answer

I just wrote two posts on being empathetic. Several commenters felt that empathy was an important leadership skill. That is why we are happy to see empathetic people get promoted because we realize it is important but is seldom a skill associated with managers. The answer may be that having power, as in being a boss, actually causes a change in the brain reducing the ability to be empathetic.

Research conducted by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada has led him and his colleagues to believe that power fundamentally changes how the brain operates. Chris Benderev, in his article When Power Goes To Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart reported on Obhi’s research on an area called the mirror system. As Benderev says:

The mirror system is important because it contains neurons that become active both when you squeeze a rubber ball and when you watch someone else squeeze a rubber ball. It is the same thing with picking up a cup of coffee, hitting a baseball, or flying a kite. Whether you do it or someone else does, your mirror system activates. In this small way, the mirror system places you inside a stranger’s head.

He says that because our actions are also tied to deeper thoughts we may begin to empathize with why someone is doing something.

The effect of power

What they found was that people who were given power had diminished activity in the mirror system. They were not able to empathize as much with the people they were viewing. Their findings are similar to other psychological research that also shows empathy diminishing as power increases. So it should not be surprising that bosses become less empathetic as their power increases. May explain why some many CEOs are considered SOBs.

Their research also found that the more powerless a person is the more empathetic they become. I wonder what this says about human resources positions.

There was some good news. They have found that bosses who lose their empathy can be coached back. Or you can just demote them.

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