The Blinding Effect of Power

high heel and holder onI will be brief and to the point: When one feels powerful and in control, one is at risk for failing to perceive the emotions of others in their presence. Or, power blinds.

Conversely, those without power tend to be acutely aware of the emotions of those who have power over them.

In the first case, lack of empathy is an aid to achieving and maintaining power—empathy being a potential source of distraction that could reduce focus and energy around one’s goals. In the second case, abundance of empathy is an aid to maneuvering around the machinations of the powerful—empathy being an early warning device in knowing when to steer clear of the powerful’s path.

The latest research (Hogeveen, Inzlicht, & Obhi, 2014) on this phenomenon has established that the mirror neurons of persons out of power tend to activate when they perceive powerful others, while the mirror neurons of persons feeling their power tend to remain inactive when viewing their underlings.

The consequence—powerful people often carry this insensitivity to others at work over into relationships in which power is not, or should not, be an issue. This results in partners, friends, and family who have feelings that tend to be overlooked.

The remedy—powerful persons who value non-power-based relationships (husband-wife, parent-child, friend-friend) need to consider one of these several practices in order to stay informed about others’ needs:

  1. Confidant. Ask another person in each context of your life (work, home, community) to observe those around you, and give them explicit permission to let you know when they have observed someone who nonverbally expressed a feeling that you should know about—hurt, hope, fear, joy, and so forth, but that you have apparently neither recognized nor acknowledged.
  2. Post-Session Feedback. After each significant interaction with your significant others (a business meeting, a family discussion, a planning session), develop the habit of asking a general question that goes something like this: “OK, folks, what have I missed? Is there anything about what we have decided that anyone can’t live with? Tell me what’s on your mind—I’m not always the best at reading faces!”
  3. Gatekeeper. Assign the task of reading nonverbal messages to someone in each context of your life. For example, you might identify one of your work colleagues to serve as a “gatekeeper,” by saying aloud what they see and inviting others to share their feelings. For example, “Fran, you were smiling a moment ago—was that a pleased smile or something else? What were you feeling?” Or, “Jan, after Jim’s comment, you shifted position and began drumming your pencil. Were you uncomfortable with what he had to say? What were you thinking/feeling?”

Persons most susceptible to power blindness are those who exhibit very low levels of the Big Five personality trait of Accommodation/Agreeableness, along with very high levels of the Big Five personality trait of Consolidation/Conscientiousness.

Wise leaders know their weaknesses and find ways to compensate.

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