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Aug 18, 2017

You’ve heard the expression, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We’ve all suspected the truth of Lord Acton’s indictment and have witnessed the tone deaf boss emotionally obtuse to his effect on underlings.

Now, a growing body of scientific research is providing evidence of why this is so: power actually alters the brains of those who wield it.

In the latest discussion of this phenomenon, writer Jerry Useem summarizes the current state of research, including brain stimulation experiments by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, and two colleagues. “He found that power,” Useem writes in The Atlantic, “impairs a specific neural process” which is believed to be a key part of empathy.

Until the last dozen or so years, most of the research into the effect of power on people was observational or experimental and  conducted by sociologists and psychologists. Today powerful medical tools are enabling neuroscientists to probe the inner workings of the brains of the powerful. They’re finding that power is rewiring how parts of it function.

In a paper Obhi and researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and Michael Inzlicht first published in 2014, they discovered through transcranial magnetic stimulation that high powered individuals do worse, considerably so, than others in recognizing social cues and responding in kind.

They concluded:

“…that power is negatively related to motor resonance. Indeed, anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and seems to look straight through her in meetings. Perhaps the pattern of activity within the motor resonance system that we observed in the present study can begin to explain how these occurrences take place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless…”

This study and others, including one Useem mentions that was detailed in The Journal of Finance, suggests that insensitive managers — from line supervisors who see themselves as powerful, to top CEOs and political leaders who actually are — may be suffering a sort of brain rewiring.

Implications for HR

For HR leaders this presents challenges not easily addressed. The usual corporate prescription for overbearing, difficult and  undiplomatic managers is to enroll them in sensitivity training and provide coaching. These have mixed results. Now we know why; for many, their brains are different and the longer a manager of any rank has exercised power the less they identify with others.

In yet another study cited in The Atlantic account, which, incidentally (and ominously for HR professionals already thinking of the ADA implications) is titled “Power Causes Brain Damage,” when subjects were told of the effect of power on empathy and were asked to improve their response, they couldn’t.

A medical condition?

Referred to as “hubris syndrome by British neurologist David Owen, he theorizes, “(it) is not yet a diagnostic category of accepted mental illness but it probably stems from a set of genetically codetermined predisposed personality traits.”

He gloomily notes, “There may well be no medical cure, but it is becoming ever clearer that hubris syndrome is a greater threat than conventional illness to the quality of leadership and the proper government of our world.”

The good news is that hubris syndrome or, as the rank and file might put it, “power gone to their head” malady doesn’t afflict every leader. For some it never does and for others, a dose of humility appears to snap them back.

Alas, the bad news is that the very process that corrupts the powerful also makes it difficult for them to see themselves.

HR leaders themselves may not be immune from the syndrome, though ironically, fewer may suffer from it simply because of how long HR lacked the very seat at the table that signals position and power.

HR however needs to recognize that difficult managers may need something other than the usual management training. They may need to lose some power to relearn humility and empathy, assuming they had it in the first place. Indeed, it may be that you incorporate a requirement for those qualities into the promotion selection criteria, and monitor managers as they move through the ranks.

It’s a sticky situation since the current state of the research seems to show that hubris syndrome only worsens the higher up you go. Useem cites the tone-deaf John Strumpf, former CEO of Wells Fargo, as exhibit A.

Addressing it at the most senior level is certainly challenging and delicate, yet the consequences of ignoring it can be disastrous.

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