Power damages our capacity for compassion and empathy


Long time readers will be aware that I had an abiding curiosity about why some organisational leaders do not appear to be as keen on Disability Inclusion as their staff with disability are. It is tempting to discover and cling to an explanation that these leaders lack the moral wherewithal to back their talk with inclusive and compassionate walk. 

The importance of the role of organisational leaders in sponsoring and fostering Disability Inclusion is beyond dispute, so getting the answer to the ‘why’ question is vitally important. And that is proving to be a complex process. There simply isn’t any one discrete reason. Yes, some leaders may not be sincerely behind Disability Inclusion. But the majority appear to be genuinely supportive.

The essays in this blog are chipping away at the mystery of the slowness of inclusion in general progressively. This is one more piece in the mosaic of understanding.

On Thursday June 2nd the Neuroleadership Institute had a webinar: Leading Effectively in a Hybrid World: Surveillance vs Outcomes. While discussing manager perspective on remote supervision there was an almost passing reference to power. My notes say “Power (even a little bit) changes brain/ behaviour – leads to objectification of people.” This merited a closer look.

Power is something we need to adapt to

There’s a fair bit of material on this theme on the internet and I was quickly able to download articles. There are two I will discuss here. Typically, the articles are short and hence focused on the more spectacular findings. These amount to asserting that power creates brain states similar to psychopathy and instances where brain damage leads to a lack of empathy. There was only brief reference to a need to ensure that managers are aware of the impact of power, and to adapt to it.

The very nature of positional or organisational power is to be less concerned with individuals and more concerned with organisational scale matters. And not all people in power positions will exhibit a lack of empathy and compassion. 

Whatever might be a power-induced disposition to be less compassionate can be overcome by a stronger natural disposition toward compassion and empathy. But here’s the rub. Suppose a senior leader retains their natural compassion and empathy (and I can think of quite a few from my own direct experience who do), how do they know that this applies down through their executives and managers? (I know instances where it does not).

Essentially, unless you are specifically aware of the risk of objectification that arises from attaining a position of power, you can’t create a culture that mitigates the risks. This is important for two reasons. 

First, people on the more toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum, and people who have unresolved emotional baggage, will find objectification and a lack of empathy a comfortable place to be. The reaction triggered by gaining power can be comforting and affirming.

Second, people in power positions who are apt to be abusive will still seem okay if the leadership group’s culture unconsciously accepts objectification and a lack of compassion as part of that leadership culture. Psychopaths frequently seek leadership/management roles – and now we can see that their lack of empathy may be less remarkable in a power position.

I have noted previously that managers and executives can form an ingroup relative to which subordinates are members of an outgroup – and vice versa. While organisational status plays a role, the brain science of power may be the defining insight that creates a hard boundary between two groups that are really playing on the same team.

To demonstrate just how reflexive and potent this potential for division can be, I was talking with a friend who had attended a leadership development program for Aboriginal people run by the NSW Public Service Commission. He described how the grade 9/10 and above participants were placed in a separate grouping from the Grade 7/8s. He perceived that the privileged group was given better quality facilities. There was, in effect, a division between those already seen to have power, and those who did not. That separation was assumed to be the right, and best, thing to do.

On the assumption that the brain science research on the impact of power is valid, we must have a shared discourse on the theme. It is not just power position holders who must be aware of how their brains are operating. The comparatively powerless must also understand that the unconscious behaviours of their managers and executives might be causing conduct that’s just not okay. It’s just not intentional. A shared understanding may be a first step in finding a solution to the problem.

Using power for good

This is something psychologically healthy people want to do. But they will be limited by the degree to which they are aware of how their brains respond to power. Ideally, they will have the capacity to make self-aware adjustments to their engagement with subordinate staff.

There is abundant research that shows that merely being aware of an issue can convince some that they have mastered it – when they have not. Anti-bias training has made participants more aware of bias, but not less biased. In fact, some end up more biased. There is a fundamental difference between intellectual awareness and self-awareness.

The majority of people who aspire to positions of power desire to do good. But that does not mean that aspiration will always manifest to the same measure of the intent. It does take a fair degree of self-awareness to ensure that aspiration and actuality coincide.

Selected quotes

Power Causes Brain Damage 

Jerry Useem

The Atlantic


“Historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumour that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in study spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury- becoming more impulsive, less risk averse, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people‘s point of view.”

“Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviours, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and not-so-powerful under a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring”, that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacity as we needed to gain it in the first place.”

“But more importantly, Kelton says, is fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they’re coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

Mirroring is a subtle kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within their heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.

For nonpowerful participants, mirroring works fine: The neural pathway they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fires strongly. But for the powerful groups? Less so. 

Was the mirroring response broken? More like anaesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college graduates who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did – their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good” they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.”

“As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headline suggest many leaders cross the line into counter-productive folly.”

“Is there nothing to be done? No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier – from time to time, at least – is to stop feeling powerful.”

“Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.”

The Brain Under the Influence of Power

Marwa Azab

Psychology Today


“Ordinary people can get intoxicated by power or powerful roles. Just temporarily wearing a power-symbolizing uniform can re-code brain processes to create a new mindset.” 

(The infamous 1971 Stanford university experiment is perhaps the most compelling example of this)

“The brains of powerful individuals react differently to social cues in ways that resemble psychopaths or patients with frontal brain damage. Psychopaths and some patients with brain damage lack empathy and the ability to take others’ perspectives. Research has shown that power can deform the brain to act in the same ways. For example, people with high status have been shown to be less accurate in judging the emotions of people with low status.”

“Astonishingly, this “mirroring” vanishes in people under the influence of power. Just priming the participant with power (writing about an incident in which you had power) decreased the mirroring of others’ actions. This creates an asymmetry in relationships between the powerful and the powerless. In other words, the powerless are more attentive to the uniqueness of the powerful, and the powerful perceive the powerless in accordance the general stereotypes … Some researchers called this the default effect of power resulting in “reduced interpersonal sensitivity”… A myriad of research has shown that powerful people are more likely to rely on stereotypes.”

“The brain under the influence of power in individualistic societies seems to de-individuate the powerless and allow the powerful to practice full individuation. Successful leaders in such societies succeed not because they are powerful, but because they understand the importance of acknowledging the uniqueness of every person blind to their power status. Leaders should be trained on how to do disambiguate power from true leadership.”

The impact of lack of empathy

I recently watched a webinar from the Neuroleadership Institute on employee engagement. There was some data I found compelling:

  • Only 25% of employees felt empathy in their organization was okay.
  • 68% of CEOs feared they would lose respect if they showed empathy.
  • 70% of CEOs admitted it was hard from them to show empathy when at work.

There’s a clear message in this data. People in positions of power may feel obliged to appear to be unempathic, and even act in an unempathic manner, to have respect as a leader. Power and empathy are seen not to mix. But is that what staff think? Or is it what leaders imagine to be necessary?


As research into our brains and our psychology advances our understanding, we are constantly reminded that we are not as aware of how we behave as we like to think.

People in positions of power in organisations are a mixed lot. Some do power well, and others handle power awfully. A nuanced understanding of how power is used and abused – and that it can be misused unconsciously to catastrophic effect – is essential in a contemporary organisation.

Changes in organisational culture are dependent on empathic leadership for success.  They can be better supported if there is insight into the mechanisms inherent in individuals and organisations that impede the desired progress.

If attaining positions of power innately leads to a reduction in empathy, knowing that this is the reality can make a huge difference in how leaders intentionally shape organisational cultures.

This also helps those who are not in positions of formal organisational power to more accurately interpret the reasons why things are not happening as desired.

For staff with disability, understanding how and why people in power positions behave in response to expressed concerns about disability inclusion can help guide how best to engage with them.

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