The successful acquisition and exercise of power in business is built on a few non-intuitive skills that, taken together, make all the difference. Jeffrey Pfeffer examines the myths and explains these skills in his new book.

During his thirty-one years of teaching at Stanford Business School, Jeffrey Pfeffer (for author bio click here) often marveled at the stories former students and high-level professionals told him about their experiences out in the real, internationally connected, late-20th and early-21st century world.

Why did some clearly talented, intelligent people end up getting derailed in the business world? Why did so many professionals express such disappointment about how their work lives played out? What did the successful players know or do that others didn’t?

Prodded by these questions and based on years of social research, Dr. Pfeffer has distilled some clear, easy to grasp principles. In fact, they’re so clearly and easily described that reading his book can make you forget, for a moment, how much research is hiding behind his conclusions. He doesn’t play out the research studies in great detail – who was studied, what were the criteria, what were the numerical results. Rather, he offers up the findings with just brief, clear descriptions.

Why are you power starved?
Some of the benefits of power are obvious – possible wealth and even the ability to get important, worthwhile things done.

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There is a social psychology aspect to power, as well, as the research of David McClelland affirms: power seeking is “a fundamental human drive, found in people from many cultures.” Individuals vary in the “strength of that power motive” and in their “need for achievement.” Still, the desire for power is a foundational aspect of the human animal.

The non-intuitive aspect of both power and status is their correlation with longevity – having a “degree of job control, such as decision authority and discretion to use one’s skills,” clearly results in lower risk of death from heart disease. Research from Michael Marmot among British civil servants found that “the lower the rank or civil service grade of the employee, the higher the age-adjusted mortality risk.” This one factor, organizational rank, outweighed even the following five factors in predicting death rates: smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity, physical activity.

Dr. Pfeffer concludes, “Being in a position with lower power and status is indeed hazardous to your health, and conversely, having power and the control that comes with it prolongs life.”

These findings are consistent with later research affirming the biological benefits that accrue to the “Alpha Male” of every wolf pack!

The world is not fair
It may seem common sense to understand that the world is not a just and fair place. Nonetheless, there is a deep-seated proclivity in humans to believe in a “just world” and that “everyone gets what he or she deserves.” This results in the mistaken view that producing positive results, performing successfully, working hard and behaving appropriately will be rewarded.

Dr. Pfeffer cites the work of Melvin Lerner, as well as “literally scores of experiments and field studies” on the “just-world effect,” to affirm how deeply held this view is, and how harmful it can be within an organization.

Specifically this mistaken view has two negative effects. First, “it hinders people’s ability to learn from all situations and all people, even those whom they don’t like or respect.” Second, this view “anesthetizes people to the need to be proactive in building a power base.”

Most leadership literature is wrong
It’s rather astounding to contemplate that the millions of top selling leadership books and personal accounts of success may be not only wrong but also very misleading – including books by such leadership luminaries as former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Pfeffer writes, “leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.”

Most leadership books and courses are filled with “pablum,” according to Pfeffer, and don’t reflect the social science research that provides help on acquiring power, keeping power, and using power.

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There are three main causes for this misinformation. First, “leaders are great at self-presentation, at telling people what they think others want to hear, and in coming across as noble and good.” Furthermore, “This ability to effectively self-present is why successful individuals reached high levels in the first place.”

Second, to paraphrase an old saying, “Those in power get to write history.” Finding out the truth retrospectively can be very difficult, if not impossible, particularly since those who won aren’t inclined to share the tactics of what may have been a brutal conquest.

Third, the flip-side of the “just-world” proclivity of humans is to automatically see successful people as endowed with positive qualities and behaviors. This happens without our thinking about it or even consciously being aware of it.

Your own worst enemy? Yourself
Here again, a vast amount of research literatures affirms the counter-intuitive fact that people tend to both “preemptively surrender” and put other obstacles in their own way. This is called “self-handicapping.”

People want to maintain their self-esteem. As a consequence, rather than risking a failure, they’ll conclude that they’ve made a conscious choice not to pursue power. In the vernacular, many people say, “I chose not to play the power game.” Our human desire to protect our self-image can even result in our performing at a lower level than we’re capable of.

“Preemptively giving up” is “more pervasive than you might think,” according to Pfeffer. The single biggest effect he tries to have on his students is to get them to “try to become powerful” – don’t give up before you even start.

By Christine Arrington, published December 2010.
Our next installment will appear on January 5.