The expression, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
corrupts absolutely,” is being proven by brain science
Researchers are providing evidence that power actually
alters the brains of those who wield it.
Experiments by Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at
McMaster University in Ontario, has found that power
impairs a specific neural process, which is believed to be
a key part of empathy.
Medical tools are enabling Neuroscientists to probe the
inner workings of the brains of powerful people and are
discovering that power is “rewiring” how parts of the
The research is showing that high powered individuals do
considerably worse than others in recognizing social cues
and responding in kind, and the longer that a person
retains such power, the less empathetic they tend to
In a 2014 paper, Obhi and researchers Jeremy Hogeveen and
Michael Inzlicht noted:
“…that power is negatively related to motor resonance.
Indeed, anecdotes abound about the worker on the shop
floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the
junior sales associate whose regional manager never
remembers her name and seems to look straight through her
in meetings. Perhaps the pattern of activity within the
motor resonance system that we observed in the present
study can begin to explain how these occurrences take
place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency
for the powerful to neglect the powerless…”
As such, could it be that insensitive managers, from line
supervisors to top CEOs, may be suffering a sort of brain
rewiring that makes them the mean-spirited people that
If the researchers can conclusively prove this theory, is
it possible that we can use this impairment as a legal
defense in hostile work environment cases?
Well, having an insensitive manager’s behaviors classified
as an ADA impairment may be a stretch.
However, we do need to understand whether power causes
brain damage or is it just hubris.
A British neurologist David Owen, refers to this
managerial insensitivity as the hubris syndrome (i.e.,
“power gone to your head”) and notes, “…it is not yet a
diagnostic category of accepted mental illness but it
probably stems from a set of genetically codetermined
predisposed personality traits.”
Owen states, “There may well be no medical cure, but it is
becoming ever clearer that hubris syndrome is a greater
threat than conventional illness to the quality of
Good News: The hubris syndrome malady doesn’t afflict
every leader and for the ones that it does, a dose of
humility may snap them back.
Bad News: The very process that corrupts the powerful also
makes it difficult for them to see themselves and the
insensitivity only worsens the higher up one goes in an
Here are some considerations for improving the
interpersonal skills of difficult managers:
#1 Provide more than the usual management training.
#2 Consider methods to help them relearn humility and
empathy by losing some power.
#3 Use humility and empathy questions as part of the
selection criteria for managers.
#4 Pay close attention to managers’ behaviors as they move
through the ranks.
#5 Use humility and empathy as part of the performance
evaluation process of managers via techniques such as
360 Reviews (see link below)