HR Strange But True

Don’t Let Power Go to Your Head, Literally!

Power is a powerful thing, and recent research shows that people in positions of power are also suffering from brain damage. If your CEO seems off sometimes, there’s a scientific reason why.

headAccording to The Atlantic, behavioral researcher Dacher Keltner—a psychology professor at UC Berkeley—has determined that people under the influence of power act as though they have suffered a traumatic brain injury. Keltner spent almost 2 decades researching this phenomenon, and he determined that powerful people become “more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, found similar results after studying powerful people’s brains. When Obhi compared “powerful” brains against—we’ll call them “normal” for lack of a better term—“normal” brains, he found that the powerful brain impaired specific neural processes, specifically empathy. According to The Atlantic, “Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”

More importantly, people in power are terrible at identifying how a coworker might interpret an off-the-cuff remark or are unable to sense how people are feeling based on facial expressions. When you factor in the fact that direct reports tend to follow the example of their leaders, it exasperates this problem.

Jerry Useem of The Atlantic says, “Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people ‘stop simulating the experience of others’ [according to Keltner] which leads to what he calls an ‘empathy deficit.’”

A different study, featured in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, shows that in some extreme cases, those in power may be suffering from “Hubris Syndrome” as well. According to the research, Hubris Syndrome is “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” People with Hubris Syndrome suffer from some of the following symptoms:

  • A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory;
  • A predisposition to take actions that seem likely to cast the individual in a good light—i.e., in order to enhance image;
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation;
  • A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation;
  • An identification with the nation or organization to the extent that the individual regards his or her outlook and interests as identical;
  • A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’;
  • Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others;
  • Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve;
  • A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God;
  • An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated;
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation;
  • Restlessness, recklessness, and impulsiveness;
  • A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ about the moral rectitude of a proposed course to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost, or outcomes;
  • Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.

If any of these sound familiar to you, as in your CEO may be exhibiting some of these symptoms, fear not. Your CEO is just suffering from a case of Hubris Syndrome, for which, unfortunately, there does not seem to be a cure at this time.

Melissa BlazejakMelissa Blazejak is a Senior Web Content Editor at BLR. She has written articles for and the HR Daily Advisor websites and is responsible for the day-to-day management of and She has been at BLR since 2014. She graduated with a BA of Science, specializing in Communication, from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2008. Most recently, she graduated in 2014 with a MS of Educational Technology.