Supervisors should remember what it’s like in the trenches

05/19/2014 9:19 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Warning: Supervisors and leaders will not like this column.

Suggestion: They should read it anyway.

It’s pretty much a cliche that people on the top of an organization don’t understand the people at the base. Most TV sitcoms and movie comedies about the workplace rest on that premise.

Research confirms that.

One study by researcher Ana Guinote from the University of Kent found that people with power were more likely to ignore peripheral data and not process information that didn’t support what keeps them powerful.

Power also changes brain chemistry. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, found that the brains of people with power had less “motor stimulation” when it came to being sensitive to others or processing social input from others.

Other studies have shown that people who have power have less ability to perceive the emotional states of those who don’t have much power — the quality of empathy.

In diversity and inclusion, power in the workplace always has been an important element. The people who dominate — either by numbers or status — are perceived as imposing the policies and making the decisions that negatively affect others.

As someone who has seen both sides, that of management and those who are managed, I’m relieved to see scientific evidence to back up the seemingly uncrossable divide about what separates them.

On the the other hand, I believe that studies about how brains are wired can only go so far in letting others off the hook.

Once you know better, it’s good to do better.

Some tips for managers who need to cultivate their empathy to create a more diversely dynamic and effective workplace.

1) Consider your audience. Who best benefits from the decision you are about to make? Your employees, the people you serve, or yourself? Consider the indirect, hidden benefits that each of these people receives.

2) Check your support system. And if you don’t have one, find at least one person who can, without repercussions, call you out privately on your baloney or cluelessness.

3) Go back in time. Most people who are bosses had to take a path to getting where there are now. When decisions need to be made or when morale needs freshening, truly try to remember what your life was like before you had your current position.

4) Talk to people and really listen. That’s the best way to develop empathy. Looking at people as if they are living exactly the life you’ve lived or have the same work experiences you do is a good way to be out of touch.

In the end, good bosses don’t develop better skills of empathy to be better people. They develop those skills to be better bosses.

Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at

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