In his new book POWER Jeffrey Pfeffer describes how to pursue a “power” career path and build “powerful” personal attributes, such as acting and speaking with power. Then he addresses power dynamics–how to overcome setbacks, the “price” of power, and how people lose power.
After a distinguished career studying and carrying out social research on power, Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer illustrates the principles of power with fascinating, telling examples from the real world. One after another, his examples illustrate the counter-intuitive but effective power plays business leaders and others have used successfully. While these examples can read like “hot gossip” on one level, on another level they illustrate what decades of social research has affirmed. The examples come from business, politics, history and even war.
The Power Play
One example comes from studying “every war in the last 200 years conducted between unequally matched opponents.” History shows that the stronger party won about three-quarters of the time (72%), and the underdogs won, against the odds, about one quarter of the time.
Sometimes, though, the underdogs “understood their weakness and used a different strategy to minimize its effects.” In those cases, the underdogs won “some 64% of the time, cutting the dominant party’s likelihood of victory in half.”
Malcolm Gladwell concluded, in an article in THE NEW YORKER in 2009, “When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win.”
Strategic displays of anger can be effective—particularly if you’re a man, but be careful if you’re a woman. Pfeffer cites several people well-known for using anger to win, such as General George Patton, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, and White House Advisor Rahm Emanuel. He summarizes research showing that “angry people” are often seen as “high-status” and as being more competent. In fact, numerous studies show that people who express anger are seen “as dominant, strong, competent, and smart,” although they are also seen as less nice and warm.
Other studies show that “both men and women conferred less status on angry female professionals than on angry male professionals, and angry women, regardless of their presumed rank, received less status when they expressed anger than when they did not.”
Still, Pfeffer spoke with leading social researcher Larissa Tiedens on that question, and she affirmed “that forceful displays of anger that put the other person on the defensive are effective for both women and men.”
Dr. Pfeffer presents an example of the stark contrast between “acting and speaking with power” and doing just the opposite. He details the dramatic story of Oliver North, who in November 1986 was fired by President Ronald Reagan from his position at the National Security Council for his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal. U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Oliver North “knew how to act and speak with power.”
North stood alone before Congress and spoke forcefully about “protecting American interests, saving American lives, protecting important U.S. intelligence secrets, following the orders of his superiors.” He took responsibility for what he did and used active verbs, saying “I told” and “I caused.” As a consequence, he created a positive reputation that resulted in his running for the U.S. Senate, authoring several books, and becoming a well-paid speaker.
Donald Kennedy, on the other hand, former President of Stanford University, did not speak and act with authority, when hauled before Congress on charges of misusing Government grant money to cover “indirect costs” improperly. Kennedy did not seem to take responsibility, spoke in convoluted phrases, brought a team of advisors with him to the hearings, and looked extremely uncomfortable. After several years of investigation, the government found “no basis for its claim,” but Kennedy already had left Stanford by then.
Seven Important Personal Qualities That Build Power
Pfeffer suggests doing a self-assessment exercise, grading yourself from 1 to 5 on these qualities, with 1 meaning “I don’t have this quality at all” to 5 meaning “I have a lot of this quality and can readily use it.” Then develop a plan for strengthening the qualities where you scored lowest.
Ambition. Effort, hard work, persistence are often propelled by an underlying “driving ambition.” Pfeffer cites Abraham Lincoln’s drive to overcome an impoverished background, to rise above early political setbacks, and to overcome personal slights.
Energy. Pfeffer writes, “I know of almost no powerful people who do not have boundless energy.” This energy does three things. First, it is contagious, like many emotional states, such as anger or happiness. Second, energy and long work hours “provide an advantage in getting things accomplished.” Third, people in power often promote those with energy, partly because expending great energy signals organizational commitment and loyalty.
Focus. “The evidence suggests that you are more likely to acquire power by narrowing your focus and applying your energies, like the sun’s rays, to a limited range of activities in a small number of domains.”
Self-Knowledge. Self-reflection is crucial to learning and personal development. It requires “the discipline to concentrate, make notes, and think about what you are doing” so you can improve your skills.
Confidence. “Observers associate confident behavior with actually having power. Coming across as confident and knowledgeable helps you build influence.”
Empathy with Others. The ability to put yourself in the other person’s place will help in recruiting others to your side. As University of Texas psychologist William Ickes noted, “Empathetically accurate perceivers” are “consistently good at ‘reading’ other people’s thoughts and feelings.” This makes them the most effective negotiators and the most productive salespersons.
Capacity to Tolerate Conflict. Most people are “conflict-averse,” and thus they “avoid difficult situations and difficult people,” frequently giving up rather than “standing up for themselves and their views.” Being able to “handle difficult conflict- and stress-filled situations effectively” definitely gives you an advantage over most people.
Overcoming Opposition: How and When to Fight
Pfeffer reminds us that “disagreements are inevitable in organizations.” He cites the research of social psychologist Jack Brehm on “psychological reactance.” This “holds that people rebel against constraints or efforts to control their behavior—force is met with countervailing force.” Thus, seeking to dominate decision making and take total control of a situation probably won’t work on too many of your adversaries.
You might choose to treat these opponents well and give them a graceful way to retreat. Some leaders “turn enemies into allies” by “getting them a better job somewhere else, where they will not be underfoot.” Also, allowing people to “save face” is important for their self-esteem.
Pfeffer also describes the effective use of rewards and punishments to shape behavior. People in companies who have control of any resources can use them to “reward those who are helpful and punish those who stand in their way.”