Somewhere inside me, the brace-faced 13-year-old who hasn’t yet learned that brushing curly hair is literally the worst thing you could do to yourself shrieked.
I was on the phone with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and we were talking about his new book, “The Power Paradox.”
The paradox in the title is based on Keltner’s observation that the positive traits that help us ascend to power are often the same traits we lose once we get there. In other words, nice guys gain influence quickly – but then they go on a power trip and start acting mean.
The key to gaining and keeping power, Keltner argues, is empathy, or being attuned to what other people are feeling. And that’s equally true whether we’re talking about middle schoolers or working professionals.
Now for the insight that really rocked my teenage self’s world (and my current one): Popularity – at school or at work – is on some level about having social influence. And while mean people may be well-known, they aren’t necessarily well-liked or considered influential members of the community.
“Everybody knows who the Machiavellian guy is at work, and they talk about him, and … he gets this attention, he has this allure, if you will.
“But if you ask someone, ‘Would you collaborate with that guy?’ They’re like, ‘No way.’
“And often he or she (more likely he) is kind of in the periphery of the social organization. So they do get attention but it’s not clear they have influence.”
A growing body of research helps back up his point.
A study by psychologists at Yale and the University of New Hampshire, for example, found that more emotionally intelligent fifth- and sixth-grade students tended to have better social and leadership skills and healthier social relationships. (Emotional intelligence is related to empathy.)
Keltner explained: “The empathetic kids who know how to read other people’s emotions and are aware of the emotional dynamics of social life … also get the status and respect of other kids. They have power.”
A recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the difference between two types of popularity among kids: There’s “perceived popularity,” which describes the high-status mean kids, and “sociometric popularity,” which refers to the nice kids who everyone likes.
This distinction is just as relevant in the workplace. Researchers at the University of Surrey, Yale University, and an executive-coaching organization found that more emotionally intelligent and empathetic employees got along better with colleagues and had achieved higher company rank.
Meanwhile, other research suggests that highly empathic managers lead better-performing teams.
In “The Power Paradox,” Keltner offers some tips on becoming more empathetic, and in turn more powerful: Ask open-ended questions, listen actively, and ask others what they would do in a particular situation before offering advice.
Instead of teetering at the top until you fall from grace, you’ll be securely positioned in the center of your community.