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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Compassion: When Your Table is Too Big

I nodded in agreement as my friend said, “The promotion went to his head.” It wasn’t the first time in my somewhat lengthy life that I had seen someone get promoted and turn into a person I no longer recognized.

During my doctoral work I did quite a bit of research on the topic of power. It was a fascinating study and led to my dissertation research (which I will discuss at another time). It made me keenly aware of the impact of unreflective power in the classroom, the church, and the workplace. I say unreflective because power isn’t always a bad thing. We like those who are in charge to act like they know what they are doing and take the lead; but if they lose sight of those who are tying to follow them, it is a dangerous thing.

Not too long ago, a caption for an article caught my attention. Power Causes Brain Damage. I laughed, but was intrigued. The entire article was worth the read, but this statement stood out: Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

There is a lot to the article that explains how this “empathy deficit” occurs and can be scientifically observed, but the most interesting information was as follows:

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he 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,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

We, as humans, kind of know these things simply from observation don’t we? Where do such colloquiums such as ‘the power went to his/her head’ or ‘promoted to the highest level of incompetence’ come from? From our observations of humans.

When we say that school administrators, lead pastors, or management seem to have forgotten what it was like to be ‘the little guy,’ we are really saying that the power they have gained has changed their brain and they truly aren’t seeing any other perspective but their own.But! It doesn’t seem to actually change the brain structure, just how it is performing (what areas of the brain are active vs. dormant).

The good news is that it is possible to retain appropriate perspective—if self reflective in intentionally remembering what it felt like before the power was gained. Kind of like trying to remember how it felt to be a child when your children do something beyond your understanding.

So, what does this have to do with a table being too big? The ‘table story’ is my favorite illustration of how leaders lose touch with followers. This article made me realize how easily this can happen. The result is sometimes inexplicable and unnecessary. With self-reflection, we can do better. I have thankfully come to the point where I can blame these lapses on brain failure.

Once upon a time, there was a serf who held no power. The Lord of the Castle had decided to sell the castle and move to another castle that would be easier to maintain. As you can imagine, moving from one castle to another was fraught with complications and it was decided it would just be easier to use the serfs at the other castle instead of taking those who had been serving in the old castle. This particular serf was very unsure of what the future would hold, but the Lord of the Castle kept telling all the serfs to trust that God would take care of them. The Lord held a party to thank all the serfs who had served so dutifully. All those who were going with the Lord sat at one long table while those who were being left sat at another. There was a lot of excitement at the first table, but a lot of sadness at the other.The discussion at the first table was about finding a room big enough for a treasured table. The discussion at the second table was about how they would survive when the Lord of the Castle left. Somehow the sadness at the second table was never noticed. While they all did survive, they lived out their lives with a hole in their hearts that compassion around the table could have filled.

Understanding how power affects the brain’s ability to engage empathetically has helped me to comprehend some of the truly puzzling leadership choices and actions I have witnessed over my lifetime. I am sure, as a professor there were times when I lacked empathy. Compassion would have required me to stop and empathetically remember what it was like to be a student.

Power really can go to our heads. It is so important for all of us to be on guard to how our brains lose perspective as we gain power over others. We will leave far less holes in other’s hearts that way.

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