Practicing Lean Repairs a Leader’s Brain Damage

It’s a sign of how little power I pretend to enjoy these days when an Atlantic Magazine article’s  alarming title Power Causes Brain Damage made me more curious than concerned. In it studies suggest that given power, leaders act “as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

For example, viewed under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, heads of the powerful showed a deficit compared to the scans of the not-so-powerful when it came to specific neural process for “mirroring” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. The article claims leaders lose certain mental powers that used to rise through the ranks of power, “most notably for reading other people”. This assumes that leaders rose to their position by practicing empathy, not thanks to their lack of it, which is something worth questioning.

One could argue that executives of publicly traded companies who have low empathy are more able to deliver better short-term financial return to shareholders. A CEO can boost share price by hacking out cost without concern for the harm it causes employees and suppliers today, or customers and the company in five years, after they are paid and long gone. At the very top, the game rewards low empathy players. Would a high empathy leader who felt for the thousands of people whose jobs he had to eliminate in order to keep the business afloat make that difficult decision? Perhaps not as easily. In either case, people who are able to make these decisions more often and without hesitation are more likely to get promoted. This raises the question, does rising through the ranks erode empathy, or does naturally lower empathy help people get to top?

Low empathy is not just a matter of being all-business or numbers-oriented. There are real consequences to low empathy for decision-making and communication, two pillars of leadership. “People in power have trouble seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint,” the article illustrates. A leader with only their own viewpoint to work with must either be extraordinarily lucky, a legendary genius and correct most of the time, or spend a lot of their time distributing blame and readying their golden parachutes.

Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark. In an experiment to draw the letter E and place it in one’s head, people who were “feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else”. That is an experiment you might want to try with your team, or maybe not without a some remedies to close any empathy gaps it reveals.

The article suggest that one way to rebuild empathy is for leaders to feel powerless. Informing a leader that they are now a coach, in service of the rest of the organization, and obligated to practice a whole new set of “lean” things is a good way to make a person feel powerless. More afraid, angry, and resistant perhaps. Let’s be careful how we strip people of  a sense of power, even our low-empathy leaders.

Another remedy the article suggests is that a leader stay connected and grounded to the day-to-day, to have some humble tasks, things that knock the crown off their head every so often. This is also fitting with the lean practices of leader standard work, daily management, and going to gemba regularly.

The article speculates that the leaders get by on lower empathy because, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people,” relying on command-and-control rather than coax-and-cajole. Those of us who are students of lean organizations know that this reduced need for nuanced read of people is a dangerous illusion. Thinking we can effectively command top-down, thousands of people, is how even the best organizations become bureaucratic, fail to adapt, fail to innovate, fail to hear customers, fail expose and solve problems, or fail to develop people. An improvement workshop, simulation or small experiment, comparing the results of an empowered and engaged team with the command-and-control groups often opens a leader’s eyes.

Practicing lean coaching offers a way to build up empathy. Coaching questions that prompt the subordinate-learner, to explain their thinking to the leader-coach help the leader see things from a non-self perspective. Lean coaching commonly centers around showing up at a subordinate’s place of work and asking a series of questions such as…

  • What do you think is supposed to happen at this process?
  • How do you know?
  • What do you see as the problem?
  • How does it affect the customer?
  • What do you think is causing the problem?
  • What do you think are some things we can do to address the causes?
  • What do you think is the next step?
  • When would you like me to follow up with you?
  • What do you need from me?
  • And, “Why is that?” liberally and whenever it feels appropriate as a follow up

Short-term, it doesn’t really matter if a leader feels true empathy, just that they recognize the value of it, recognize that they are lacking it, and see that they need help faking their way through situations calling for empathy. They don’t even need to be convinced of the need, just to try it. Does it deliver results? Does it help them hit their performance targets? If yes, they will do more of it. Virtuous action doesn’t always require virtuous thought.

The idea that we can affect our mind through repetition and practice is well established. Neurons that fire together, wire together. It is easier to act our way into a new way of thinking, and so forth. Long-term, we need to price things correctly, take into account externalized costs, measuring the fruits of low-empathy leadership decisions by more than short-term financial gains.