In June, Gallup reported that 70% of Americans are unhappy at work. In an article addressing their findings, Gallup recommends a few specific organizational strategies for improving employee engagement, one of which is: “Find ways to connect with each employee. Teams are comprised of individuals, and individuals have different talents and needs. Managers should know them. Every interaction with an employee has the potential to influence his or her engagement and inspire discretionary effort.”
A large part of connecting with staff and understanding their needs involves the ability to empathize. And in line with Gallup’s recommendation, various studies have shown that increased empathy inspires better performance, including The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence from Rutgers University and Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership from the Center for Creative Leadership.
If you think about the best boss you’ve ever had, that person probably wasn’t just a role model in terms of performance, but most likely also showed an interest in you as an individual with a life outside of work. But those bosses are few and far between—so much so, that I’ve often wondered what happens to people when they get into management, where they so often become disconnected, or even callous.
This weekend, NPR had an answer to that very question. Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi at Wilfred Laurier University in Canada has been studying how power affects a person’s brain, and he and his colleagues have found some startling results. When people are in circumstances where they feel powerless, their brains register a high level of empathy. But when they are in circumstances where they feel powerful, the opposite happens: their brains register only a low level of empathy. In other words, there is something about the very nature of having even a little bit of power that reduces our ability to relate to and care about other people.
Obhi specifically highlights how his findings relate to the workplace, noting, “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,” and adds the hope that his study “can begin to explain how these occurrences take place”.
More importantly, once we understand how the manager/employee relationship breaks down, we can then take steps to address it. Now that we know that research suggests that higher levels of empathy lead to better performance, and that as soon as someone is in a managerial role their ability to empathize diminishes, the next step is to ensure we counteract that decline. Fortunately, empathy is a skill that can be both learned and improved. NPR reports that “powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves.”
It’s actually a big relief to find that you don’t have to be a jerk to become a boss. Instead, being a boss can turn you into a jerk simply because of the way power impacts the brain. If you want to climb the career ladder but you don’t want to become a jerk, then we need to make some serious changes to the way we build corporate hierarchies. Promotions shouldn’t just come with a handshake and a raise. They should come with workshops on how to retain the ability to relate to your colleagues.