In his blog post early this week, The More Leaders Make, The Meaner They Get, Scott Berinato reports on research by Sreedhari Desai on whether sky-high pay leads to worse treatment of workers. According to Desai’s study, the answer is yes:

Increasing executive compensation results in executives behaving meanly toward those lower down the hierarchy.

Chalk one up for Lord Acton. But is it money that makes leaders meaner? Or the power connected to money? While Desai’s research shows a correlation between high pay and mean behavior, it doesn’t establish a cause between the two. Desai’s research suggests that money is an insulator. It shields leaders from the results of their actions.

This echoes a point I made about abuse of power in an earlier post: the more leaders insulate themselves from themselves and others, the greater the tendency to abuse power. In writing on the Eliot Spitzer scandal, I said:

When power comes into play, the walls between public and private self are fortified by the trappings of the job itself – unlisted numbers, personal assistants, wood paneling and leather furniture, a limo and driver, private jets, mobile devices, and layers and layers of intermediaries that protect them from contact with their everyday self.

We are not meant to be cut off from the stream of constant feedback about our behavior. Our tiniest actions have profound effects on others. We constantly receive feedback about our actions, so we can steadily monitor, adjust and correct our behavior and respond to our environment. We’re a cybernetic system, undoubtedly an evolutionary design necessary for survival. But when we rise in the ranks, when leadership, money, or fame insulates us, we are too far upstream to be aware of the downstream effects of our actions. Time, space, the trappings of power, and the layers of staff, agents and bureaucracy separate us from the results of our actions.

Smart leaders know this, and go to great lengths to connect with all the people in their organizations, at all levels, to hear the feedback, to solicit and engage with bad news, to open themselves up to feedback and criticism. But it’s not only leaders who need to be vigilant. While it’s human nature to be constantly receiving feedback, it’s also human nature to cut ourselves off from it, or filter it out. We distance ourselves from feedback, for instance, when we sit behind a computer and post anonymously, or when we surround ourselves with admirers, students, or just live in a too homogenous world. This is one of the reasons exposure to diversity is so crucial. Our assumptions, interpretations and cultural lenses filter out data that don’t correspond to our belief systems. We need to shake up the cognitive egg, to be buffeted about at least occasionally by jarring information, dissonant data and reflections of ourselves that may be hard to take.

For those of us who coach, train and help leaders grow and develop, rather than using an annual review instrument and helping people interpret results of a survey or rating, we’d be better off teaching them how to read and interpret the millions of verbal and nonverbal signals we receive daily, and how to connect them to our actions. Life is a performance review; we just have to remember to engage with it directly on occasion.