The observable examined

Why some have power and others dont?

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On November 5, 2011, Stanford held its second Stanford Saturday University. The agenda can be found here. I had the opportunity to attend this year too. I attended three lectures. I will write a piece on each one. This one is the first. The topic : Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t. The lecture was given by Dr.Jeffrey Pfeffer, a leading expert on the topic and the author of a book with the same title. In a nutshell, he was very engaging, entertaining, authoritative, and confident – essential hallmarks of a powerful person.

He began the discussion by providing some operational definitions (or rather reinterpreting some common definitions). For example, Genius is really high performance in any endeavor. It is not innate or spontaneous but is achieved through practice and perseverance.  Power then is the opposite of dependence (that is, others depend on you ). Power is the ability to get your own way (in the face of opposition). If you are powerful, you never leave a position involuntarily.

Pfeffer then launched into some hard truths about power in the workplace. Power is inevitable when hierarchies are involved. By its very nature hierarchy implies there will be competition for advantageous positions (think alpha males among chimps). Here is a piece of advice from Pfeffer. Get over your ambivalence about power. It is good for you. It can be monetized. If you are powerful, you can get things done and affect change. Get this, having power leads to improved health and mortality (apparently you are less stressed because you control your agenda).  So seek power as if your life depended on it.

Here is another interesting insight: job performance does not equate to power. Other contributing factors include education, tenure and most importantly, political skill.

So what does political skill entail ?

  • Social Astuteness – ability to sense hidden agendas
  • Networking ability – connected to influential people
  • Interpersonal influence, and the most interesting one
  • Apparent sincerity – appearing sincere is sufficient

Typically, if you lack power, the likely reasons are you are your own impediment (afraid to fail, and excessive worry about how others perceive you).  A tongue in cheek comment, power will most certainly bring likability. We lack power because we accept status and hierarchical differences. We see the world as fair because we are less vigilant and strategic. (Here he recommended the book “Why bad things happen to good people”).

Other reasons for lack of power : you are unwilling or unable to make trade-offs required for power. For example, if you prefer being liked versus getting things done. Forming fun relationships rather than strategic relationships. Doing work strategically with an eye towards advancement versus doing interesting work. In essences, you cannot be an accidental tourist in the land of power, you have to plan the trip.

Some people think they are powerful but they are actually not. These individuals suffer from a self enhancement bias : they think they are above average when they are not. They overestimate their positive attributes. And suffer from the illusion of control. They are committed to decisions and not willing to change (reminded me of sunk costs).

Pfeffer’s list of individual qualities necessary to attain power

  • Ambition/drive
  • Focus
  • Energy and Endurance
  • Self-knowledge
  • Confidence
  • Empathy
  • Capacity to tolerate conflict
  • Persistence and resilence

Here are some tips for acting and speaking with Power

  1. Be aware that you are on stage
  2. Put on a show
  3. Posture, body language and eye contact are very important
  4. Use gestures
  5. Display anger instead of sadness or remorse.

This is where Pfeffer shined.  He used all of these techniques to great effect throughout his lecture.  He offered even more tips on how to speak powerfully.

  • Interruption (most people would think this rude but I suppose it is also a measure of power)
  • speak in clear, declarative and simple sentences
  • in a debate, contest the premise of the debate
  • make use of lists
  • use Us versus Them references
  • Use contrasts
  • Pause for emphasis
  • Avoid notes
  • Use humor

The last part of the lecture was all about attracting allies. Here you rely on the norm of reciprocity (you scratch my back, I scratch yours). Escalating commitment. Try not to be judgmental. Flattery is an effective tool. Most important, be positive and certain (this contributes to emotional contagion that can win people over).

Many of these topics, I am sure, are flushed out in greater detail, in his book. It is on my reading list. All in all, a very engaging first session.


Written by asterix98

December 4, 2011 at 5:31 am

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