The Dark Side of Power

Power, Empathy and the Mirror Neurons

Those who want to understand the emotional state of others make use of a biochemical effect that Rizzolatti and Sinigagila already discovered in 2008, namely the mirror neurons. These ensure that the same biomechanical mechanisms are triggered when observing emotions (disgust, pain, etc.) as when experiencing one’s own. This so-called “motor resonance” is important for us to be able to respond to others and to deal empathically with the feelings of others. Thus, truly “understanding” the emotion of others is a directly encoded mechanism that is neither cause nor consequence of specific stimuli.

Empathy is thus enabled by the mechanism described. However, there are factors that limit the capacity for empathy. For example, there are people whose capacity for empathy is impaired, due to certain personality disorders. A common clinical syndrome is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPS), whose main symptoms are grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. In addition, these people (and usually much more their peers) suffer from an exaggerated sense of self-worth. This has already been addressed in the article “The narcissistic dilemma in business”.

Also, people suffering from autism spectrum disorders are often attributed to be less empathic. However, it is not the empathy that is impaired in autistic people, but merely the ability to perceive the feelings of others correctly. Thus, only cognitive empathy is impaired, not affective empathy.

However, in the corporate context, it seems to be much less about the normal human abilities in the area of empathy. Managers are supposed to act rationally, to make factual decisions and to act on the basis of numbers, data and facts. What about the perception of feelings? What factors have a reinforcing and inhibiting effect on empathy?

Power and Empathy

One framework condition in the corporate context undoubtedly plays an essential role: power. Whoever wants to move things (and that is what managers are supposed to do) needs first and foremost exactly that! Without power you are powerless (sic!). Power is the “authority to determine something or someone”. The one who decides about resources in the organisation can move things. Thus, there is the concept of the power of disposal, which gives the owner of power the right to dispose over objects. Therefore, the leader of the enterprise automatically has the power of disposal over the resources entrusted to him, i.e. the human and material resources. Who disposes e.g. of budgets, has power! It is the same with human resources, of course.

Power changes how we behave – not always and only for the worse. For example, Ian Robertson of Trinity College has found that power and success make us more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive. The effect can be like a drug and can therefore make us just as addicted.

So, here we are at one of the first negative effects of power: addiction to it, because power can be addictive. Success and power make for increased testosterone releases and lead us, for example, to act more riskily.

However, power also seems to change how empathic we behave, i.e., to what extent we perceive the feelings of others (“sympathize”) – ultimately an important prerequisite for social behaviour. In the book “The Power Paradox” by Dacher Keltner, an experiment is reported in which one random person is selected as the leader of a group of three in an interview situation. This person is later to judge the other participants in a writing task. During the task, a plate of four cookies is then brought in. Each test person takes exactly one of them from the plate, leaving the fourth cookie, because no one wants to appear antisocial or greedy at first. However, at some point the Cookie Monster shows up and with very high significance it is the randomly selected leader, i.e. the person who feels entitled to take the last cookie because of the powerful position.

Abuse of Power: Dark Empathy or The Dark Triad

A relatively new phenomenon in the context of empathy is that of “dark empathy.” This refers to a pattern of behaviour exhibited by a person who uses empathy on a cognitive level for their own benefit. Dark empaths can recognize another person’s situation without empathising with them. Basically, there are three forms of empathy:

Cognitive empathy

The ability to grasp another person’s emotional perspectives and thoughts without being emotionally involved.

Emotional empathy

Empathising with another person’s emotions as if they were one’s own (mirror neurons help with this, as described above).

Compassionate empathy

A combination of cognitive and emotional empathy.

Very often, “broken empathy” occurs together with another phenomenon described as the “Dark Triad”, namely the combination of narcissism, psychopathy (APS, Antisocial Personality Disorder) and Machiavellianism. Interestingly, these disorders are relatively rare in the population (only about 1-3% suffer from APS), but relatively common in regular prison and – in higher management positions! According to Robert D. Hare, they are overrepresented in higher hierarchical levels, other estimates suggest that they are about six times more likely to be found in management positions. (Robert D. Hare: “They don’t rob banks, they become bank executives”).

Now here is the critical point: How do these people get into power in the first place? It seems that especially in large, highly hierarchical systems, it is easy for these people to reach influential positions and to get to the levers of power. These systems apparently gravitate toward selecting people with a certain propensity for the Dark Triad. Recruiters look for psychopathic or narcissistic behaviours such as dominance, manipulation, exaggerated self-love, or increased risk-taking and mistake them for leadership. Moreover, it also appears to be a strongly male phenomenon. Elevated levels of psychopathy lead men, in particular, to assume leadership positions, not women on the other hand.

But why are we discussing this in the context of New Leadership or Transformation? Because we are convinced that our world today needs new concepts of leadership beyond traditional systems of power. In complex situations, we need intelligent, self-directing organisational systems. Organisational research shows very clearly that agile systems are superior in situations of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. So it seems to be helpful to keep the psychopaths out of leadership, i.e. to create incentive systems for and in leadership, which is just not so attractive for the Dark Triad.

Approaches and Recommendations against abuse of power

In our view, the following approaches are important:

Approach 1: Lateral leadership, power based on “new authority”.

A promising concept in organisational development is that of Lateral Leadership. Lateral means “to the side”, i.e. very much at eye level. Lateral leadership is not based on formal power (it does not really exist there), but on commitment between the leader and the person being led. The authority to lead is given by the person being led because there is trust in the person and belief in the cause. It is situational and can be withdrawn at any time. It is thus much less based on positional power, which is common in hierarchies, and is therefore much less susceptible to the corruptions of power. The structures of the organisation must therefore be such that they prevent too much accumulation of positional power and early indicators effectively show the abuse of power.

Approach 2: Personality Development of the Powerful (“Leading Yourself”).

To avoid the lure of power, the ability to self-reflect is critical. Empowerment to lead others comes only on the basis of the ability to lead oneself. The very concepts of emotional intelligence (Daniel Goleman) are based on the ability to self-direct. Those who do not have their own emotions under control cannot perceive the feelings of others and certainly cannot deal with them. Therefore, in addition to the training of leadership skills, the training of emotional intelligence is an essential part of the training of future leaders. In our leadership training (based on our concept of New Leadership), an important component is therefore called “Leading Yourself”.

Approach 3: Selecting Leaders

However, it is not only the training of the next generation of leaders that plays an essential role for the future of the organisation, but also, and in particular, the selection of the “right” personalities. It should be noted that many young people are no longer interested in the old leadership concepts. If they are going to lead, they don’t want to lead in the same way as their parents, who worked their way up in the mills of large organisations over many years and then had their burnout at the age of 45. In some organisations, there is now a greater awareness of the potential damage of toxic employees and bosses in particular. Robert I. Sutton’s research on “assholes” in organisations, the idea of a “No Asshole Rule” and the consideration of “Total Cost of Assholes” is exciting. If you want to prevent sick leadership systems, you would be well advised to establish effective rules to prevent assholes in leadership positions.

Approach 4: Organisational and Cultural Development

In addition to the individual and organisational dimensions, there is also the cultural dimension, which plays an important role in preventing power dysfunctionalities. Behavioural patterns that have been ingrained over years and decades persist stubbornly – even long after the actual cause of the behaviour has been eliminated. Therefore, it is always a matter of reflecting on individual and collective behaviour, making it visible and questioning it. Here, agile methods with structures such as retrospectives offer good starting points for avoiding undesirable developments. However, conventional power systems in organisations are not only a problem, but also an opportunity to organisational transformation. If the forces of power can be bundled with the disposal of resources, then the transformation can quickly gain momentum.

Conclusion on Power 

Power is a construct that operates in organisations and can also do a lot of good. However, it also alters our empathy and can be addictive. Certain personality disorders are favoured in leadership selection in distinctly hierarchical systems and tend to abuse power. To avoid dysfunctionalities and promote organisational transformation, we need more laterally oriented leadership systems, careful selection of leaders, personality development in leadership training, and distinctive culture development.

Author: Prof. Frank Widmayer

New Leadership Training

Core principles, competences and practices for modern leadership.

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Read more:

Obhi, Sukhvinder S. (2014). Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others. Vol. 143, No. 2, pp. 755-762.

Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2016). The mirror mechanism: a basic principle of brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, pp. 757-765.

Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2008). Empathy and mirror neurons. Suhrkamp Publishers.

Robertson, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How power affects your brain. Bloomsbury.

Sutton, R. I. (2010). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus.

Sutton, R. I. (2017). Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…. And Learn from the Worst. Piatkus.

Sutton, R. I. (2018). The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Penguin.

Widmayer, F. (2016). The narcissistic dilemma in business. LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/das-narzisstische-dilemma-im-unternehmen-prof-frank-widmayer/).