Research shows that personal power actually interferes with our ability to empathize. People who have power suffer deficits in empathy, the ability to read emotions, and the ability to adapt behaviors to other people. ~Lou Solomon
I recently met with a potential client who is seeking someone to help them to better live out their values, specifically around diversity. During our initial conversation I provided an example of an intervention that I have found helpful with other clients. When they are ready (this typically isn’t in the first meeting), I’ll ask everyone in a group or team to identify two things for each person.
- One thing that the team member contributes that makes the team better. The single biggest area of strength as it pertains to the impact on this group.
- One thing that the team member does that sometimes hinders this team. One aspect they could improve upon.
They seemed a bit apprehensive by my suggested intervention. They asked if a subordinate would give feedback to their supervisor. Well, yes. In my opinion, if a supervisor isn’t ready to hear feedback from the people they supervise, then they really aren’t ready to be a supervisor. This is why people with power suffer deficits in empathy.
It Starts Small
According to Solomon, deficits in empathy start small. Leaders with power might throw their weight around, then demand special treatment. They practice isolated decision making – getting their way. Before you know it, they are using their power for their own benefit.
So what can leaders do if they think they might have crossed the line?
Solomon says, “leaders must be willing to risk vulnerability and ask for feedback.”
Asking for feedback doesn’t mean you are losing your power. It means you are using your power most effectively for the team and the organization. It’s one step to help keep you from abusing your power, and allowing you to maintain your ability to empathize.
Leaders Adapt Behavior to Other People
Another intervention I use frequently is I ask team members to spend a week intentionally looking for ways they can adapt their behavior to other people. This too can be challenging for leaders with power. They don’t spend much time thinking about what other people need from them, especially in terms of behaviors.
For example, a leader in power might be someone who is very comfortable forging ahead on a project with very vague direction. However, other people need more specific details to get started on a project. Neither behavior is right or wrong; they are simply different. It’s the leader’s responsibility to adapt their behavior in order for others to have the best chance possible to achieve success. In other words, empathize!
If you have power, have you checked your empathy deficit lately?