John Stumpf, former CEO of Wells Fargo, was fired for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. At his congressional hearing, Stumpf, a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, seemed utterly unable to read a room.
Oscar Munoz and his company, United Airlines, was publicly ridiculed for weeks following completely inadequate attempts at an apology for dragging a man off an overbooked plane. How could the CEO of the world’s third largest airline be so out of touch?
Why does president Trump seem to get more and more impulsive and misogynistic on Twitter the longer he is in power, even when his behavior directly undercuts the support he needs to be successful?
Power and Brain Damage
The answer may lie in damage to the brain caused by being in a position of power, according to new research published by psychology professor Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley. As summarized in the Atlantic, “Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted 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.”
One of the most crucial brain regions damaged by power is Mirror Neurons, those brain cells required for empathy. Findings from related research published in the Journal of Neuropsychology showed that people in positions of power were less likely to be able to see things from another person’s point of view. The scary part; even when subjects were instructed to make a conscious effort to display empathy, they couldn’t.
In 2009, Jonathan Davis named this phenomenon The Hubris Syndrome, citing 14 clinical features that include manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence. More recent science is now supporting biological brain changes behind the loss of empathy that accompanies power.
Getting stuck at Persistence: If You Stay, You Pay
In the Compassion Cycle, our model of healthy conflict, we identify three compassion skills necessary for resilience in times of stress and conflict.
Openness is about confident transparency, and includes the skills of empathy, validation, and resonance with others. Openness fosters a safe place for healthy dialogue, inclusion, and diversity.
Resourcefulness is about creative problem-solving, most importantly, in a way that fosters mutual competence, shared responsibility, and learning from mistakes.
Persistence is about priorities, perseverance, and principles. While all three compassion skills are critical for healthy and effective functioning, Persistence tends to be most associated with positions of authority and power. This is because highly persistent people show grit, determination, and are able to leverage charisma around a vision.
Here’s the catch. The Compassion Cycle is a continuous process. We are meant to cycle through these three skills seamlessly and fluidly to respond to what’s going on around us and inside of us. No one skill is sufficient for success. One of the principles we teach is, “If you stay, you pay.” In my book, Conflict Without Casualties (Chapter 5), I draw parallels between fall of human civilization and the tendency to get stuck at Persistence. Every human civilization so far has failed because of their inability to return to Open after getting to Persistence. The result is a dangerous mutation into the drama role of Persecutor, which has these features:
- An attitude of “I’m OK, you’re not OK.”
- Willingness to dominate, manipulate, blame, control, intimidate, and destroy others in order to get results
- Tunnel-vision and lack of empathy
- Avoiding any uncomfortable emotions or vulnerability by counter-attacking
- Failure to change or adapt. Just double-down.
People, organizations, and civilizations fail because they go to war and kill each other off in an adversarial competition, or they fail to adapt to changing environmental conditions and go extinct.
Research suggests that staying at Persistence too long will damage your brain and interfere with your ability to behave in a way that most likely ensures your long-term success and survival.
Openness is the only healthy, next place to go from Persistence. Oscar Munoz figured it out. John Stumpf and Donald Trump have not. If you want to break free, here are some tips for building your resilience against the brain damage of power:
- Learn about and practice the three compassion skills. Click on the links above to learn more.
- Gain awareness into your own risks and competencies. Here’s an assessment you can take that gives you accurate results and strategies for making positive changes.
- Make the courageous step to stop and listen. Listen to yourself and the people around you. Tune down the voices in your own head long enough to experience what’s actually going on in the real world around you. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
- Have some fun with it. It’s not scientific, but it will start some great conversation.
Note: Thank you Paul Larkin for bringing this research to my attention, and for your keen interest in the arena of compassionate accountability.