Leadership, and the adjacent faculties of power and control, can come at a cost. Contemporary wisdom shows that being a leader comes with its perks and perils. However, more often, a leader notices the perks while their subordinates see the disadvantages. The title change from “subordinate” to “leader” is much more than a change in wage or status. It is also a psychological change in behaviour, causing leaders to begin acting apathetic toward other people.
The change in leaders’ behaviours occurs due to both psychological and chemical changes in their brain.
There have been many explanations regarding the psychological effects of power on people. Deborah Gruenfield, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford University, states that as people gain power and become leaders, they start objectifying other people as a means of success. Leaders do not treat their subordinates as living, breathing people. Instead, associates are seen as tools to help leaders achieve what they want. With time, leaders become apathetic to those around them. They only focus on how to maximize and commodify human labor.
The reason leaders become apathetic is due to their innate narcissism. In general, narcissism is fueled by feelings of success, power, and being “superior” than everyone else. Dr. Bart Wille, a professor at Ghent University, states that people develop narcissism when they want to get ahead of other people, which is precisely what needs to be done to climb the corporate ladder. The personality trait of narcissism inflates a persons’ sense of self-worth, which results in the feeling of superiority. When leaders hold authority in their respective positions and cannot check their narcissism, they view themselves as superior people, especially among their inferior subordinates. This dramatically lowers the leaders’ capacity for empathy toward others.
In addition to changes in psychological behaviour, chemical changes in the brain also occur as people climb the corporate ladder. Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute, states that the process of succeeding increases testosterone levels, leading to an increase in dopamine production, meaning greater energy and pleasure. Simultaneously, these feelings of satisfaction and pleasure urge leaders to take unnecessary risks in the name of success. Leaders become fixated on achieving successful results, causing them to lose sight of the bigger picture. As such, the word “success” eventually extends past raising profitability or market share of the company.
Simply put, the chemical and hormonal changes in leaders’ brains cause them to stop caring about what other people feel. Dr. Robert Vance of the Society for Human Resource Management states that company performance is largely dependent on employee performance. The amount of satisfaction that employees derive from working directly impacts their performance, as it affects the degree of commitment employees are willing to put into the company. Leaders who show concern for their subordinates’ feelings will increase employee satisfaction in the company. The increase in job satisfaction increases employee performance, which subsequently improves the overall company’s performance.
However, leaders’ apathy toward subordinates is often engrained companies’ operations that reinforce these behaviours by promoting traditional leadership styles. The well-established “traditional” leadership style, described in 1947 by renowned social theorist Max Weber, has been used far before Weber brought up this concept. This type of leadership style is becoming dated and instills toxic and detrimental habits in our leaders.
The traditional leadership style has a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Leaders have supreme authority over all subordinates and behave like overseers. The role of leaders in the structure is to give orders and expect results. This style inflates leaders’ sense of superiority by reinforcing pillars of authority and power over others. Angela Heise, a researcher on emotional intelligence and leadership, states that there are numerous traditional leadership fallacies. Those fallacies include: leaders managing people with the same attitude as managing tasks, leaders not caring about building positive working relationships with subordinates, and leaders being indifferent about subordinates’ needs and independent lives. This apparent lack of understanding and negligence of human equity is a significant downfall of traditional leadership.
Leaders should adopt a more supportive attitude toward subordinates. The contrasting concept of supportive leadershipsuggests that leaders can work together with employees, supporting them through obstacles, and developing a mutually beneficial work relationship with them. Working side-by-side with associates shows that the leader is not detached, as constant interaction with subordinates develops leaders’ understanding of their subordinates. A workplace where subordinates and the leader treat each other with empathy and respect makes for an effective workplace.
The degree of commitment leaders put into their career is not discredited; leaders deserve what they have earned. However, leaders need to be aware that the company does not consist of just the leader themselves; it consists of employees working together to put the leader’s visions for the company into fruition. There is a dire need to change leaders’ apathy toward subordinates and start showing concern for employees.