Why Powerful People Struggle to Understand Victims

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton,  April 5, 1887


We tend to think of the corrupting influence of power in intentional, purposeful, and conscious terms. But it’s really much more devious than that.

Research shows that the brains of people with power actually work differently than the brains of people without power. The mere existence of power, real or perceived, changes how both the more powerful and less powerful think and react.


It’s an important lesson for leaders because subordinates are more likely to respect and follow empathetic leaders. Not being able to empathize with subordinates lessens your effectiveness as a leader.


But it’s also important because power is situational. The same leaders who feel empowered when speaking to the people who report to them, will feel less empowered in a group of people with more influence. Each person, regardless of their position or station, is likely to have moments as both the most—and the least—powerful person in the room.


Influential people tend to think more positively and abstractly than those in weaker positions, because they have the luxury of seeing the big picture. One needs to look no further than Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes to see how this tendency to focus on the positive can be bad for business. Holmes got so caught up growing the business that she neglected to ensure that the product was safe or even effective.


But this same tendency to view situations more positively and abstractly can also manifest as leaders struggling empathize. A subordinate’s mistake may seem illogical or unconceivable, or the decision a subordinate made could seem shockingly ignorant to a leader who cannot understand the thought process involved. The leader may think that, in the same situation, he or she would have acted or chosen differently.


Organizational psychology, however, has documented that when people feel powerful, risks become less noticeable—for themselves and for others. To put it simply, the less powerful person is likely to choose what seems to be the more cautious approach—even when it’s the wrong one—because the less powerful person faces more risks in acting.


It’s easy for leaders to get stuck in the big picture and the outcome. Not only will this result in being an uninspiring leader, leading an unmotivated flock, it can also cause leaders to make ethically dubious decisions without fully weighing the consequences.


In the next post, we’ll look at how power creates psychological distance between those in charge and those working for them.

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