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 to make 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, moving swiftly and effortlessly from task to task.

Sure enough, the picture was different a few years later. 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. Through it all, keeping my sense of empathy seemed to be a much harder task. Instead of personally knowing everyone in the company with a sense of connection, it became much easier for me to quip at this department or that department. Instead of seeing them as humans to talk to and collaborate with on solutions, I started seeing them as structures to control and move. This group of humans—a living, breathing organism not so long ago—seemed now more like a machine that needed to be steered and piloted. 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 to and being with my own humanity, 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. 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 is one that I’ve been treating with increasing care and attention lately. I’ve been stepping carefully in its exploration—in the past, I’d gotten myself entangled with it a number of times. A description of power that I found the most helpful comes from Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication:

“Every human has a need for power. Power, at its 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 simply the ability to make changes to our environment. As Rosenberg points out eloquently, the problem occurs when we use that ability in a way that isn’t in harmony with other humans’ needs. He terms that phenomenon “over-powering”, and it often results 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 the needs of those affected by our actions. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Rosenberg also coined the term “power with”, which means to stand up for yourself and your needs while still 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.

The Power Paradox and Our Brain

And yet even with this understanding, large amounts of power have been shown to have major devastating effects on us, regardless of positive or negative influences. In the much-acclaimed book by Dr. Dacher Keltner titled The Power Paradox, Keltner 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.”

In other words, it is our sense of empathy, understanding, and enthusiasm that brings us power in the first place. And once we gained that power, it contributes to us needing less of the thing that brought us to power—empathy and understanding.

Taking things to the next level, Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist and Director of the Neurosociety Lab at McMaster University, explained how power can influence our actual brain structure, not just our behavior. Dr. Obhi 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 “Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others”, Dr. Ohbi explains that the results of the testing “strongly suggest that power is negatively related” to our ability for mirroring and having empathy for others. It affects our capacity to take in other people’s behaviors and thereby know their needs. According to Dr. Obhi’s testing, people that have spent long stretches of time in positions of power seem to have a severely decreased ability for mirroring and empathy.

Looking at the concept of power and how it changes our brain’s functions has inspired social scientists to produce dozens and dozens of experiments over the last few decades in search of more information. Many of these scientists’ results support Dr. Obhi and Dr. Keltner above: the idea that power makes us less likely to behave ethically, diminishes our perception and perspective, and causes us to have overall less empathy for others around us.

My understanding of these papers as well as my own personal experience has brought me face-to-face with the difficulty of having empathy while your 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 one person can hold power over hundreds of thousands of people—powerful people like Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, or any number of politicians. This power imbalance has brought about many unforeseen effects, especially effects that directly impact our brain.

Countering the Negative Effect While in Power

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 as well.

In The Power Paradox, Dr. Keltner identified four key ways that we can counter the negative effects of power: Empathy, Generosity, Gratitude, and Storytelling.

Let’s look at ways that we can practice these counters, stop our empathy brain-centers from succumbing to atrophy, and build a fortress against the negative effects that power brings:

  • Commit to practicing natural gratitude. Finding ways to practice gratitude sustainably is crucial; Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude and psychology, finds that practicing natural gratitude decreases our sense of entitlement and creates a more pro-social work environment. Here are a few ways to practice it with impact:
    • Do a “gratitude circle” with your partner. This practice can range from reflecting on your collective health, to your relationship, or on any other positive things you as partners can find. Our format is simple: we each share a gratitude, back and forth, until we both reached three. I’ve noticed how much this has tuned me into noticing more positive things about my life more frequently.
    • Keep a “gratitude journal” for yourself (keep it to three entries). Keeping a gratitude journal is another well-documented approach to practicing gratitude regularly. My personal tip for making the practice sustainable and regular is to keep it three entries per day at the most, so it can be done in five minutes or less (which research shows is already enough to gain the powerful effects).
  • Engage in Loving-kindness Meditation. Metta Meditation is a meditation practice that fosters both gratitude as well as kindness and empathy (usually translated as “loving-kindness meditation”). It is often practiced by following and repeating the verses “May I be happy, may I be healthy and strong, may I live with ease”. First, you begin with first visualizing yourself or someone dear to you receiving those words, 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. I also sometimes pick a person or group of people who I’m curious about my ability to send these kind thoughts to.
  • Spend time with the least powerful people in your organization. To some, this should be a given. However, in many organizations—including the one I started—it wasn’t the norm after a while. Having a regularly-standing lunch session to meet the junior support team members or sales people may seem like a waste of time if you’re the CEO. But doing so will have a massive impact on your sense of empathy for the people in your organization, and benefit 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 that builds our empathy more sustainably and powerfully than developing empathy for yourself. When in a position of power, having someone that you trust and that listens to you on a regular basis allows us freedom to meet ourselves in our alienated and vulnerable places. This builds empathy for people that we couldn’t before, and that will immediately ripple out to your organization.

The Takeaway

In the modern startup world, power goes hand-in-hand with a growing org. If you feel yourself drifting away from the roots of your company while growing larger, try my advice and see where it takes you. I hope you’ll find a reconnection with the heart of your organization, and fortify yourself for the stresses placed on your empathy in the future.

Okay, 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!