The Startup Empathy Dilemma: As Power and Impact grows, Empathy diminishes – Leo Widrich

I remember the early days at my startup almost a decade ago. It was just me and my co-founder and we were enjoying our journey of building a small product and making a few people’s lives a bit better. The empathy we had for our early customers, for each other and for the first people that joined the company seemed boundless. There was a certain feeling of lightness that seemed to carry me through the days, allowing me to feel open to any and all suggestions and moving swiftly and effortlessly. 

A few years later, sure enough, the picture was different. Our power and size had grown tremendously, we were making millions of dollars, with millions of people using our product and I liked that very much. Keeping my sense of empathy seemed to be a much harder task. Instead of knowing every person in the company personally and with a sense of connection, it became much easier for me to quip at this or that department. I started seeing structures to control and move instead of humans to talk to and collaborate with on solutions. This group of humans, that was a living, breathing organism not so long ago, seemed now more like a machine that needed to be steered and moved around. In some ways I felt estranged, both from my own humanity as well as from everyone else’s too.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time returning and being with my own humanity and finding my footing in empathy and heart to heart connection with others. It’s also given me time to look at the power dynamics at startups from a more zoomed out position. And I’d like to also look at some of the neuroscience surrounding power and its impact on us to get a better understanding. Let’s dive in. 

Celebrating power as an important human need

The concept of power has been one that I’ve been treating with increasing care and attention lately, because I had gotten myself entangled with it a number of times. A description of power that I found most helpful from Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, is along the following lines:

“Every human has a need for power. Power, at it’s core, is the ability for us to be able to change our environment to allow us to meet our needs. We exert power all the time, when we build a house, take a step or even when we breathe and take in oxygen.”

Power is just the ability to make changes to our environment. The problem, that I think Rosenberg points out eloquently is when we use that ability in a way that isn’t in harmony of other humans’ needs. He terms that “over-powering” and resulting in something all too common today: violence. Violence in that sense, is the ability to use power in a way that isn’t in line with everyone else’s needs who might be affected by our actions. On the opposite spectrum Rosenberg coined the term “power with”, which means to stand up for yourself and your needs as well as respecting and working with others so that their needs are being met too. To me this is revolutionary and in many ways impacted my life dramatically when I learned about it. 

Dissecting power in that way, it’s positive and negative influences on our lives is vital, since I’m not interested in throwing out power. Instead, in my experience a world where we’re in touch with our own power, as well as everyone else’s is one where connection and happiness lives. 

The power paradox and its impact on our brain

And yet, large amounts of power have had major devastating effects on us. In the much acclaimed book by Dacher Keltner titled “The power paradox”, the psychologist comes up with a fascinating observation: 

“We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”

Dacher Keltner, The Power Paradox

In other words, it is our sense of empathy, understanding and enthusiasm that brings us power in the first place. Many people in power seemed to act, he observes, as someone that had suffered a traumatic brain injury. And once we gained that, it can contribute to us needing less of the thing that brought us to power, that being empathy and understanding. 

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist took things to the next level and wanted to understand how power influences our actual brain structure, not just our behavior. He looked at brain scans comparing people that have held high-power positions for long periods of time (multiple years) and compared it with those that were in less powerful roles in their jobs. In his paper he concludes that “The results […] strongly suggest that power is negatively related to motor resonance.” Motor resonance is a term that describes our ability for mirroring and having empathy for others. It’s our capacity to take in other people’s behaviors and thereby know their needs. And people that spent long-stretches of time in power position seem to have severely decreased ability for mirroring and thereby having empathy for others. 

Looking at power has drawn in social scientists to produce dozens and dozens of experiments over the last decades. And many of them conclude similarly to Obhi and Keltner above: That power makes us less likely to behave ethically, diminishes our perception and perspective and overall have less empathy for others around us. What seems valuable to point out here is that a lot of behavioral research uses a technique called “social priming”, where you induce a state of being in power or having less power for the experiment. These social priming experiments have received backlash from the scientific community in recent years for not being able to be easily replicated, which has diminished its quality to many. 

Nonetheless, my understanding of these papers, as well as my own personal experience have brought me face to face with the difficulty to have empathy as one’s power and impact on the world grows. My personal take is that in a global world it is possible for some of us to hold power that our brains simply weren’t prepared for. Evolutionarily, it is a very new phenomenon that 1 person can hold power over hundreds of thousands of people like Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook or even millions of people like politicians do. That this literal power imbalance has brought about many unforeseen effects, not least directly impacting our brains. 

How to counter the negative effects when we’re in positions of power

Although a lot of these studies point to some hopelessness when it comes to power, I do think there’s hope, lots of it in fact. If the main thing that goes down is our empathy muscle when we’re exposed to power for long periods of time, making distinct efforts to build our empathy muscle so to speak is crucial. From my 1:1 work with founders, CEOs and professionals, building your empathy muscle doesn’t just combat the downsides of power, it makes people plain more content with their lives. And to me it’s important to think of practicing empathy not just a means to combat the negative aspects of power, but as a general approach to living a meaningful and enjoyable life.  

In general, Keltner identified 4 key ways that we can counter the negative effects of power: Empathy, Generosity, Gratitude and telling stories.

Let’s look at ways that we can practice these 4 and stop our empathy brain centers from atrophied and build a base against the negative effects that power brings: 

  • Commitment to practicing natural gratitude: When I had a daily gratitude journal a few years ago, I stopped after a few months, mainly because it felt like it was another thing on my to do list and I was just going through the motion after a while. Finding ways to practice gratitude sustainably is crucial, for one reason Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude, finds that it decreases our sense of entitlement and creates a more pro-social work environment. Here’re ways to do it with impact: 

    • Gratitude circle with your partner: A few times a week after morning meditation I spend time with my partner sharing gratitudes, one at a time about our lives. This can range from reflecting on our health, on our relationship and on any other positive things I can find. Our format is simple, we each share a gratitude back and forth until we both reached 3. I’ve noticed how much this has tuned me in to notice more positive things about my life more frequently. 
    • Gratitude journal for yourself (keep it to 3 entries): Keeping a gratitude journal is another well-documented approach to practicing gratitude regularly. My personal tip to make it sustainable and regular, which is most important in getting a boost from the benefits, is to keep it 3 entries at the most, so it can be done in 5 minutes or less, which research shows is already enough for powerful effects. 
  • Loving-kindness Meditation: A meditation practice that fosters both gratitude, as well as kindness and empathy is Metta Meditation, which translates to loving kindness meditation. It is often practiced in a simple format by following and repeating the verses “May I be happy, may I be healthy and strong, may I live with ease. You begin with first visualizing yourself to receive those words or someone that is very close and dear to you, whichever is easier. You can then gradually direct it outwards to more and more people that you are less closely connected to, up until you reach people that you might even feel some anger toward. I found most helpful to be honest with myself as I practice it and step back from a person if it doesn’t feel natural and yet attempt every so often to pick a person or group that I’m curious if I can send these kind thoughts to. There’s clear evidence from the largest meditation study to date, showing that this affect based meditation training both increases our sense of wellbeing and thickens the regions of the brain that are associated with empathy.  
  • Spend time with the least powerful people in your organization: To some, this should be a given, yet in many organizations, including the one I started, after a while, this wasn’t the norm anymore. Our brains are wired to view people that are “out-group”, meaning not in our immediate circle of people we regularly interact with prejudice and more easily convert what we see into stereo-types. This is both stressful for our nervous system and spikes our cortisol levels as Sarah Peyton writes. Yet, the more we’re putting ourselves in a position of the less powerful, the more our empathy and mirroring muscles in the brain will be exercised as we’ve seen above from neuroscientist Obhi. Having a regularly standing lunch meeting to meet the junior support team members or sales people may seem like a waste of time if you’re the CEO. Yet, it could have a massive impact on your sense of empathy for people in your organization and your own wellbeing at the same time. 
  • Develop empathy by finding your own blind spots with a therapist, coach or friend: There’s nothing that I’ve found to build our empathy more sustainable and powerfully than developing empathy for yourself. I remember one session in particular with a CEO that I’m working with who said “Wow, after understanding all these parts about myself and embracing them, I feel so much less tense about going into this meeting.” Immediately I thought to myself, wow, an hour of empathy may change the experience for so many people immediately in this meeting, who instead of anger, now receive a warm curiosity from their boss, what a miracle, both for him and the people in that organization. Having someone that you trust and that can listen to you on a regular basis allows us to meet ourselves in our alienated and vulnerable places and thereby build empathy for parts that we couldn’t before. And that will immediately ripple out to your organization. 

Over to you. What have you observed as your own company has grown and how that has affected power structures and empathy? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below! 

Leo Widrich was a tech entrepreneur building Buffer, a $20m+ business before turning toward his inner life several years ago. After living in buddhist monasteries for some years and training as a therapist he is currently helping executives and professionals build their emotional resilience. Subscribe to my free newsletter or find out more about working with me

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