If you’re out of touch with people you’re trying to lead, try a dose of humility.
Higher status individuals don’t relate well to others, and that’s a big problem for any boss trying to influence an organization.
If you’ve ever heard “our senior managers just don’t listen,” you’re already familiar with the symptom. Research conducted at UCLA on Social Status and Mentalizing shows a possible cause: bosses’ brains are anti-social.
Okay, that’s a little strong. The way the researchers put it, higher status individuals pay less attention to others, worry more about themselves, and are less generous. Lower status individuals, on the other hand, pay close attention to social cues, work better in teams, and are more generous.
What’s surprising is that these behaviors seem to be hard-wired into our brains. Under functional magnetic resonance imaging, subjects were primed to feel lower or higher status. Consistently, those primed to feel lower status more accurately discerned the emotional state of facial photographs. That’s no surprise, because numerous studies have found that lower status people tend to pay more attention to the emotions of others.
What the neuroscientists were looking for was different brain activity between the higher and lower status subjects. They found it.
Part of the brain thought to be responsible for “mentalizing”– putting ourselves in others’ shoes–showed heightened activity among the lower status subjects during the test. (If you’re keeping score at home, these parts include the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS).)
All of this makes sense. The tribal chief is naturally more autonomous than the lowly brave. The trouble for leaders comes when trying to influence the tribe, because those who are more attuned to others’ feelings will have more rapport and those who are more aloof.
One can speculate that very large compensation differences between senior managers and employees would only increase the disconnect between the two. Physical barriers, covered parking, and the other perks that go with business seniority increase the relative status differential and logically decrease communication and leadership effectiveness.
This phenomenon may explain the results of a study by Stephen J. Sauer of Clarkson University in New York. Dr. Sauer found that new leaders from lower status business schools can take the reins and give orders effectively, while new leaders of higher status must use their personal persuasion skills to succeed. Perhaps the personal approach forces the higher status bosses to better understand their people, while the lower status bosses naturally mentalize and read people more accurately.
While neuroscience recently unveiled the way the brain handles status, the ancients understood the need for humility in leaders. Victorious Roman generals rode in a special chariot during the Triumph–a celebration of conquest. As throngs of Romans cheered the general and his family, a slave stood behind him repeating in his ear, “All glory is fleeting.”