The Secret to Being a Better Leader: See and Hear Others

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Photo: Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln’s rise to power was entirely unexpected — he was poor, outside the political mainstream, and lacking the connections and refinements of his political rivals. And yet he surprised his better-funded Republican counterparts to win the nomination, and would go on to lead the United States through its most divisive and polarizing crisis, to become one of our greatest presidents. What was Lincoln’s political genius? The substance of his enduring power? Thurlow Weed, a journalist and close observer of Lincoln, had an answer. Here’s what he said of Lincoln in the Albany Evening Journal:

He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him.

Lincoln’s genius for power was simple. See people. Hear them. Talk freely with those who want to engage. Take in the thoughts of all people, no matter what their ideology or class background. Today we call that empathy — the understanding of what other people think and feel. In my new book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, I review the science that makes a similar point: Empathy gives rise to lasting and effective power in our personal and professional lives. If you want to make a difference in the world, or want that for your children, cultivate Lincoln’s genius for empathy.

Consider one recent study of team performance. Small groups of strangers were tasked with completing creativity and decision-making tasks. Some groups proved to be more successful than others; they were the ones led by high-empathy individuals who were focused on others’ emotions, asked questions of others, and conveyed interest through subtle affirmations and head nods. Their acts of empathy empowered those around them to do more successful work.

Other studies have assessed empathy according to how well people identify emotions from subtle facial expressions. (If you’re feeling game, you can test yourself, and get some empathy tips, at the Greater Good Science Center’s website.) People who score high on these measures consistently gain power, the research shows, in a variety of contexts. The high-empathy 5-year-old, for example, enjoys dense networks of good friends when assessed at age 8, and greater social status. High-empathy adolescents have more friends and fare better academically. And at work, adults who are better judges of human emotion prove to be better negotiators, and do better work in their organizations, as assessed independently by their supervisors. Team members led by empathetic managers — who listen, hear, and take in what others think and feel — work in more productive, innovative, and satisfying ways.

Empathy leads to power for many reasons. People who attend to others carefully are better able to resolve conflicts, and negotiate in ways that yield better outcomes for the parties involved. Empathy enables people to handle the stresses of social living better. For example, in one study, simply labeling an angry expression with the word anger — the most rudimentary act of empathy — reduced the activation of stress-related regions of the brain usually amped up by perceiving others’ anger. Perhaps most important, carefully attending to others’ emotions conveys respect: People feel esteemed when they are heard and understood by others, and are more willing to be influenced by such people.

Right now you might be scratching your head and thinking of a boss who never listens, a wealthy colleague who’s always interrupting, and those out of touch politicians, religious leaders, rock stars, sports stars, and kings of finance whose abuses of power regularly appear in the daily news. What gives? What gives is that empathy is a good practice for gaining power, but once people feel powerful, or enjoy a position of privilege, their capacity for empathy takes a dive. This is one of many versions of the power paradox — that the socially intelligent skills that allow us to earn power vanish once we have power — that led me to the title of my new book.

Consider several recent studies of how power undermines our capacity for empathy. Individuals who feel more powerful in their friendship are worse judges of their friend’s emotions. In experiments, when people are randomly assigned to a position of power or led to think they are above people, their ability to read others’ emotions suffers. Power even causes empathy deficits in the brain. New studies are documenting that when people feel powerful, or come from a privileged background, the empathy networks in their brains are disengaged when interacting with others. Power leads us to lose sight of Lincoln’s great genius, of seeing and hearing all.

These empathy deficits have serious costs. They lead those in power to treat others with disrespect, causing stress and diminished commitment at work. Empathy deficits readily give rise to demeaning stereotypes that people in power can be vulnerable to, such as perceiving and treating women as incapable of leadership positions, when new studies find that just the opposite is true. These empathy deficits can lead to abusive actions as well. For example, people feeling powerful often flirt in inappropriate ways because they misperceive the anxiety and discomfort of those they are making advances toward. Look closely to any fall from power — Nixon’s paranoid resignation, ENRON’s epic meltdown, the recent firing of Baylor’s football coach over the mishandling of sexual assaults committed by players — and empathy failures are typically nearby.

Those who want to rise and keep their power need to stay committed to the empathic tendencies that earned them the esteem and respect of people in the first place. They would be well advised to hew to Lincoln’s timeless wisdom: See and hear others.

Dacher Keltner is a University of California, Berkeley, psychologist and the co-director of the Greater Good Science Center. His latest book is The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.