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Don’t let power go to your head: practise empathy

Don’t let power go to your head: practise empathy
Mary Thomas, Associate Editor, ATB, Jan 2019, Edmonton

Donald Trump seems to flash all across the mind’s eye when you think of one whom power has left bereft of human decency and compassion. Maybe he wasn’t always like that.
Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley, University of Californiafound from a series of experiments that people in powerful positions acted more impulsively, were less risk-aware, and were less able to see things from another perspective.Strangely, these traits are synonymous with people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Social power makes people give less value to the emotional reactions of others’ suffering.
While it may seem strange that exterior events can cause changes in your brain structure, the human brain possesses the characteristic of neuroplasticity, which causes it to constantly “rewire” itself. Power actually corrodes your brain.There might be advantages to having less empathy if you’re in a position of power and have to make some tough decisions.
When SukhvinderObhi, a neuroscientist at Canada’s McMaster University, “put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, ‘mirroring,’ a cornerstone of empathy.
Because the exercise of power over large groups of people is not part the human DNA that is optimized for cooperation in small groups, it’s not surprising that it has a debilitating effect on brain function.
But if someone you know is veering close to “Hubris Syndrome”— a manifestation of a number of unsettling personality traits like losing a sense of reality, excessive self confidence and a contempt for others — then you might want to stay clear.
There is still hope for those who desire to rise to the top and retain both basic human decency and the capacity to understand and connect with others. While power exerts a powerful drag from empathy, that doesn’t mean you can’t swim with all your might in the opposite direction.
Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people. Another idea is to get “a toeholder” who tugs you back towards reality whenever you threaten to float away on your inflated ego. Winston Churchill’s wife, for instance, called him out if he got too big for his britches.
However, if you’re aware and conscious that power can erode the skills that helped you to rise in the first place, you’re more likely to work hard to stay grounded and compassionate.
Experts suggest the following:
1. Keep people in your life who “knew you when” and know how to pop your bubble of pretension.
2. Encourage and reward honesty, but discourage and penalize flattery, from employees and advisors.
3. Avoid the trappings of privilege that further isolate you from normal human interaction.
Indeed, the CEOs I’ve interviewed who didn’t talk (and act) like jerks were the “down to earth ones” So, if running or building a big firm is your idea of success, cling your roots to keep your brain intact.

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