Why Power Saps Empathy—And What You Can Do To Keep Yours

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that business leaders with high empathy scores tend to be more attuned to their customer base's needs, more innovative and more capable of motivating, supporting and leading their employees.

Everyone starts out with the best of intentions. As a new founder or a newly-promoted leader, you begin making promises to yourself, swearing that you’ll be the compassionate boss you wished you had as an overworked intern, the thoughtful leader who can inspire hope and dedication even in the toughest of times. You will be savvy, empathetic, charismatic, and, most of all—kind.

But over time, as you climb the corporate ladder and take on ever-increasing burdens of responsibility, those promises start to erode. You find yourself closing your once-open office door, dismissing friendly conversation, and contemplating employee-impacting decisions with a clinically dispassionate eye.

You begin to suffer, in other words, from a very real neurological phenomenon called hubris syndrome. First named by David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, hubris syndrome refers to the “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

Owen developed his diagnosis after evaluating all UK Prime Ministers and US Presidents who held office across a 100-year span. In his analysis, he found that the qualities often associated with top-notch leadership—charm, inspirational ability, persuasiveness, vision, bold self-confidence and risk-taking—often came paired with darker, less immediate qualities. These included impulsivity, recklessness and, above all else, an exaggerated pride that leads to dangerous self-confidence and contempt for others.

The British physician’s findings paint a concerning picture of the long-term side effects of high-stakes leadership. However, his analysis relates solely to world leaders—which is why, in 2018, another cohort of researchers reframed his investigation to CEOs. Their findings paralleled Owen’s; often, CEOs pulled back from their colleagues, friends and even family members as they gradually shed empathy from their thinking and decision-making.

“Through our interviews, we heard variations of this time and again,” Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Louise Chester summarized their conclusions for the Harvard Business Review. “It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.”

But what are the consequences of this? What happens when leadership practices are bereft of empathy?

First and most obviously, these leaders lose the benefits of empathy. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that business leaders with high empathy scores tend to be more attuned to their customer base’s needs, more innovative, and more capable of motivating, supporting and leading their employees. Empathetic workplaces have benefits, too; their employees frequently report less stress, better morale and stronger collaborative spirit than non-empathetic environments. One study even found that employees in empathetic workplaces tend to bounce back from emotionally-fraught events such as layoffs more quickly.

Without empathy, these benefits are absent—and workplaces are undoubtedly worse off for the lack. The business and human costs posed by an unempathetic working environment can be severe. For one, the American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that roughly 550 workdays and $500 billion are lost due to workplace stress annually. Research has also tied at-work pressures to health problems such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and even death.

Ironically, a leader’s cold, detached focus on achievement over employee wellbeing may even backfire in the long run. As one writer explains for the Harvard Business Review, “While a cut-throat environment and a culture of fear can ensure engagement (and sometimes even excitement) for some time, research suggests that the inevitable stress it creates will likely lead to disengagement over the long term. Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

Statistics back this point. Studies by Gallup indicate that workplace stress can boost costly voluntary turnover by nearly 50 percent and foster 37 percent higher rates of absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, and 60 percent more at-work errors. With all this in mind, it becomes clear that empathy isn’t just a social must-have — it’s a business necessity.

But, how can a leader preserve their sense of empathy? If Owens, Hougaard, Carter and Chester’s theories around hubris syndrome are correct, eroding empathy is a side effect of long-term leadership. Is preventing the character leak even possible?

Yes; however, leaders need to make a concerted effort to preserve their empathetic skills. Empathy, like public speaking or leadership itself, is a skill — if you work harder at developing it, your capability will grow.

Spend some time in self-reflection, and think back over the last major business decision that impacted your staff. Did you consider the consequences from an emotional perspective? How did you relay the good — or bad — news to your personnel? Do you generally welcome feedback and conversation, or do you tend to shut people down? If you tend towards clinical decision-making and an emotionally-detached leadership style, you may already be experiencing empathy erosion.

If you feel this is the case, take some time to check in with your team. Do they seem happy and productive, or anxious and poorly-oriented for success? If your workplace is suffering from a lack of empathy, the latter will likely be in evidence.

Once you have a gauge on the extent of the problem, you can start developing a plan to improve your organization’s empathetic culture. In most cases, your first step will be simple — start demonstrating empathy yourself. Show that you care about your employees by codifying simple gestures of kindness and understanding into management policies. Embrace a transparent, thoughtful tone in your office communications, and always take a moment to consider what the emotional reaction to your news may be.

Research from New York University’s Stern School of Business suggests that when leaders are empathetic to the point of being self-sacrificing, employees are often inspired to become more loyal and committed to the organization. In turn, this feeling encourages them to go out of their way to support other employees and create a self-reinforcing cycle of goodwill.

Above all else, always strive to put the wellbeing of your team front and center. Your business succeeds because of your team — so why wouldn’t you support its members? Empathy matters; don’t let yours fade!

Get the StrategicCIO360 Briefing

Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CIOs in every industry


Strategy, Insights, Action

In our weekly newsletter, get insight into the biggest issues facing CIOs, along with strategic ideas, solutions, and interviews.

Strategy, Insights, Action

Once a week, get insight into the biggest issues facing CIOs, along with strategic ideas, solutions, and interviews.

Your information is secure – we don’t sell or rent your data to any third-parties.