Jonas recently was promoted to a manager position at a nationwide furniture store. One of his responsibilities was to oversee the internship program for the company. In his first performance review as manager, his biggest complaint was how taxing overseeing the internship program was for him. He ranted about how long it took for the interns to grasp new concepts that he felt they should more easily understand. In return, the interns also reported how frustrated they were with their training experience. The end result was an overall lower level of engagement by everyone involved. The thing is, Jonas started at the company as an intern going through roughly the same program he now oversees.
His frustration has more to do with changes in his brain than he might realize. He’s not alone; it happens to everyone who moves into a leadership position.
Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi and his colleagues conducted a study to measure how power affects empathy. They found that power inversely impacts the mirror neurons in our brains. Mirror neurons are related to empathy. So, the less power we feel, the more our mirror neurons are triggered, and thus the more empathy we feel. But the more power we feel, the less our mirror neurons are triggered, and thus the less empathy we feel.
“What we’re finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy,” says Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley.
A key characteristic of a “5” is to empathize with those in other levels of the Engagement Pyramid. In this way, they can best support them at the level of engagement they are at. The challenge, however, is that the more someone feels like they are in an authoritative position, the more their brain loses touch with the ability to empathize with those who are in lesser authoritative positions.
When Jonas was promoted to manager, despite the fact that he himself used to be an intern, his newfound power clouded his ability to empathize with the new interns. Not all is lost though, because more research in the same field says that individuals can be coached back into empathizing with others.
Here are some ways to help you reclaim your empathy for others:
- Ask questions and listen to their feelings instead of talking at them.
- Look back on your old photos or journal entries from when you were in their position.
- Write out a “What might it be like to be in their shoes” exercise to understand what they might be thinking and feeling.
We are all on an engagement journey, just at different points. Remember, as a “5,” you are a leader serving the people who look to you for guidance. You were once just like them, so give them the grace to grow and develop, just like you did.