by Michelle Marasch Ouellette
The tone-deaf elite. We can cite example after example, some extreme. Take former BP CEO Tony Hayward. In 2010, after 11 died in the oﬀshore-rig explosion that started a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he told reporters, “I’d like my life back.”
In 2015 there was Martin Shkreli, founder and, at that time, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. After his company raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 to $750 and he sent emails celebrating the proﬁt margin, Shkreli called the move altruistic, saying “my whole life has been one theme, of self-sacrifice for my investors.” He later laughed his way through congressional testimony.
This past April, there was United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. After a passenger was bloodied while being dragged oﬀ an overbooked flight to make room for an employee, Munoz apologized for having to “re-accommodate these customers,” saying that the incident was “upsetting” to everyone at the company. He, of course, did not mention the feelings of the man who was dragged, the other passengers or the horrified public who viewed cellphone footage of the “re-accommodations” online.
The public recoiled from the BP spill’s devastating effects on lives, livelihoods and the environment. It grew outraged on behalf of the HIV and cancer patients who depended on Turing medications that many could no longer afford. And it had visceral reactions to hearing the screams of the doctor pulled from United’s plane. Yet the CEOs seemed blind to the suffering.
Shkreli’s lawyer blamed the CEO’s poor congressional performance on “nervous energy.” At CNN, correspondent Stephanie Chen wrote that Hayward failed to “recognize a fundamental rule of crisis management” — the need to “think with a little less head and a little more heart.” Forbes writer Adam Hartung suggested that Munoz was “locked into viewing his company operationally.” Executives would do well to follow the advice of Chen and Hartung. During crises, when people are hurt, CEOs must respond as humans first.
The empathy required may be hard for the leaders to muster; however, if an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic is correct. In it, Useem shares research that likens the effects of power to brain damage.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that test subjects who felt powerful “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,” Useem writes.
The very traits that help people come into power — empathy, sharing, fairness — often fade as those same people begin to feel power or privilege. In his October 2016 article for Harvard Business Review, Keltner calls this change the “power paradox” and cites its harmful effects, including decreased productivity among oﬀended employees. Useem also points to research by neuroscientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, which backs up these findings.
When most of us watch an individual in action, it ﬁres our neural circuits as if we, too, were performing that action. The phenomenon is called “motor resonance.” In tests, the researchers found that subjects who had been primed to feel powerful had lower levels of this resonance than those who were made to feel they had little power or those in the control group. Simply put, the powerful people had less empathy. In subsequent research, subjects informed of this deﬁcit could not increase their motor resonance by willing it to happen. These findings should give leaders pause, and they provide evidence of the importance of public relations.
Useem also mentions Louis Howe. Howe, a respected adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was always willing to talk truth to the president, according to Jean Edward Smith’s 2007 book “FDR.” Few people could have talked to FDR the way Howe was heard to on the telephone: “You damned fool! You can’t do that!’” Smith writes. Howe considered it his duty to serve as “toe weights to keep Franklin’s feet on the ground.” In doing so, he taught Roosevelt the importance of “small favors and public gestures” and helped the president navigate union issues, insisting that FDR personally meet with leaders. Howe’s work has been considered a key to FDR’s success.
If power does, indeed, change brains and cause leaders to lose empathy, then “toe weighting” by PR professionals should play an even larger role in executive suites. But there is implicit danger in this work, even for communicators. Sitting at the management table, sampling success, gaining pride, growing in power, we too can fall into the power-paradox trap.
To prevent the power paradox, Keltner suggests we develop three essential practices — empathy, gratitude and generosity. These traits “have been shown to sustain benevolent leadership, even in cutthroat environments,” he says. He tells us to practice empathy by taking time to think about others before meeting with them, asking questions and listening “with gusto.” For gratitude, he suggests we write notes of appreciation and publicly acknowledge the contributions of others. Finally, he says we should be generous with praise and one-on-one time and even in the delegation of high-profile responsibilities.
Compiled by the Arthur W. Page Society, the “Page Principles” can also help protect organizations from empathy-challenged leadership:
Power and privilege may change people for the worse, but there is much that we as communicators can and should do to protect our organizations, stakeholders and leaders from the damage that often results. Let’s vow to use the principles and be the empathetic, grateful, generous toe-holders that our organizations and leaders need.
Michelle Marasch Ouellette’s research focuses on crises. The assistant professor of PR at SUNY Plattsburgh is founder of the North Country Virtual Operations Support Team and has nonproﬁt and college PR experience. Among her recent articles is “Prison Break: The Truth About Crisis Communications in a Social World.”