Out of Touch Leadership
Power blocks empathy and hence being understanding of others.
Posted January 24, 2019
The dismal disconnect
Today, 34 days into the government shutdown and one day away from the second missed pay period for 800,000 federal workers, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated that he saw no reason why these unpaid workers were going to food banks and shelters. According to Ross, all they simply needed to do was get a loan to tide them over. Then, later in the day, the President offered to clarify what he meant and explained that all these federal workers are local folks, so they can go to their local banks and local landlords and local mortgage lenders and work out a deal. I got paid this month, I am very grateful for that. But if I hadn’t and needed a helpful local loan, no such thing would be coming, not quickly for sure. The last bank refinance I did took weeks for the bank to process and required a zillion copies of every financial document I owned. Even though the decision was based on a job I had held for over 20 years and was still securely employed in that same job, I waited weeks for approval! So much for a quick “tide you over loan.”
And my mortgage has been repackaged and sold so many times that now my “local mortgage” company is some large banking corporation thousands of miles from my home. And I shop at a wonderful grocery store that is part of a large corporation housed in another state. In writing this piece I looked up company details, and there are over 2300 grocery stores owned by that company. It feels like a local grocery store because my neighbors work there, but they are part of a very large out-of-state corporation, not a local neighborhood dry goods store that might extend credit. There are no local folks to talk to about getting a loan or permission to shop with a promise to pay later. I remember being furloughed without pay during the Great Recession. It’s horrible. We all should feel for the 800,000 workers going over a month without a paycheck. What did I hear with the Secretary of Commerce (who of all people should understand, well, commerce!) and the President’s comments? Disconnect. And such a disconnect shows a lack of empathy.
Limited personal experience incubates a lack of empathy
So why the problem with empathy from leaders who themselves have probably never had to even think for a moment about a loan that covered their basic needs or securing some leniency from a landlord? There are two reasons that are interrelated—lack of personal experience and lack of empathy. Personal experience is a powerful teacher. Personal experience teaches us about situations. However, people in power have no idea what it is like for 99.9 percent of the population. And for Ross and Trump who are proud of their billionaire status, that number is not hyperbole. In fact for them it is really 99.99999 percent of the population! Billionaires account for .00001 percent of the U.S. population. But we cannot personally experience everything, so how do we learn? When we have not experienced something, we have to learn it through the experience of others. We do that through empathy. However, research finds that those in power generally have lower levels of empathy. Why?
Power blocks empathy
There are several reasons why power is a barrier to empathy.* First, those at the top do not need to attend to the behaviors of those below them, especially in the ways that those below have to attend to the behaviors of their superiors. Bosses come in, tell people what to do, and then their orders are followed. Those below must be aware of the mood, needs, opinions of their bosses. And the lower you are on the work or social order, the more moods, needs and opinions of people you must attend to who are above you. So, lower hierarchy folks are better at reading others than are those at the top. Second, getting to the top may be easier for those without empathy. They can be laser-focused on advancement and doing what they need to do to gain power without being distracted or emotionally touched by the needs and circumstances of others. Brain science backs this up. Neurologically, people in power attend less to surroundings, to the behaviors of others, and have deeper brain activity for self-focus. They don’t readily attend to others in ways that we expect to show empathy. People in power can be empathic, but they need to work at it, to want to feel for others. Unfortunately, today we had the unfeeling aspects of power and a lack of empathy on full display.
*A fully detailed explanation of how power blocks empathy can be found in Chapter 8 of my book:
Segal, E.A. (2018). Social Empathy. Columbia University Press.