Feb 16th 2020

Think you’ll make a great boss? Research shows that power can corrupt

by Suzanne Ross

Suzanne Ross is Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, at the Nottingham Trent University

 

People often complain that their boss lacks understanding and compassion, thinking they would have approached the job entirely differently. But are leaders really deficient when it comes to empathy? And if so, why?

The question is important. Since the ethical failures of leadership that led to the 2008 recession, there has been a concern for the relatively unchecked power of chief executives. These people after all have the ear of politicians and are influential in shaping society.

This has resulted in a desire for a more distributed and ethical approach to leadership. There is a trend for organisations to want to develop leadership at all layers – rather than it being the domain of a powerful few. We are also seeing an increase in publications that call on leaders to be empathetic, ethical, authentic, humble, fair, emotionally intelligent and responsible.

Despite this, recent research has shown that power is linked with selfishness. For example, people who have power over a greater number of followers are less likely to use moral reasoning and care for the collective wellbeing than those who have power over fewer followers.

What’s more, earlier research on “motor resonance” – which is linked to empathy because it measures our level of perception of other’s actions and experiences – found that people in power displayed lower resonance than people with less power did.

Chicken and egg

During Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, Michelle Obama made the observation: “Being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are”. So does power change a leader or does it reveal the leader for who they are?

Research on power and moral identity concluded that a person’s moral compass does influence whether their power results in self-interested behaviour.

Power for an organisational leader typically derives from assigned authority(positional power) and the ability to exert influence over others (personal power). When a leader balances authority and influence with attributes such as empathy, integrity or humility, this is more likely to result in ethical use of power. When authority and influence are not tempered by such positive attributes and are wielded for self-interest or morally ambiguous purposes, unethical abuse of power ensues.

But research also suggests that power can change us. So what happens when people gain power? The vast majority of us, after all, have empathy to some degree. This is central to emotional and social competency and to emotional intelligence, which are useful in running an organisation.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, has explored the correlation between empathy and cruelty seeking to uncover how some people behave in depraved, immoral ways while others don’t. Baron-Cohen uses the term “empathy erosion” to explain how we can all turn our empathy off due to our beliefs, experiences, goals and emotions. When empathy is turned off, we are focused on our own interests to the detriment of others.

The road to leadership, with its focus on achievement of goals, delivery of results and financial performance – together with increased levels of stress – might therefore lead to empathy erosion even in the most well-intentioned leader. In fact, research suggests that power makes people more likely to act in a way that is consistent with their goals – increasing persistence and the seizing of opportunities. But this goal focus also makes them more likely to ignore peripheral information, which in social situations, can be perceived as lacking in empathy.

The company Enron, whose leaders were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy, provides an extreme example of empathy erosion with increases in power. While Enron adopted a formal statement of human rights principles advocating respect, integrity, communication and excellence, retrospective reviews of leadership describe them as immoral, arrogant and mercenary – exploiting loopholes, manipulating markets and inflating profits in a bid to be successful.

More recently, concern over leaders abusing power has shifted to the technology industry with the chief executives of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon coming under increasing scrutiny.

But is it really just the fault of the boss? Power and empathy in leadership is a complex dynamic. Baron-Cohen’s book illustrates it is not only leaders who might turn empathy off, followers may do too. If the results of power are beneficial to us, could it be that we even overlook a lack of empathy in our leaders?

In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them.

So yes, power can certainly corrupt. That said, if we want to create truly empathetic leaders we must all challenge our own behaviour.

 

Suzanne Ross, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Jul 4th 2020
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Jun 29th 2020
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Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
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Jun 17th 2020
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Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
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May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
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Apr 7th 2020
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