Everyone likes to get their own way and powerful people get their own way more often. We’re generally nicer to them and we listen to what they have to say. Who wouldn’t want to be in a position of power? But it’s not quite that simple.

Academics define power as the privileged access to a resource that other people want and have less access to. This resource could be money – so your boss, who can control your income by giving you a raise or by firing you, has power over you. Or it could be respect, or contact with important individuals. Whatever it is, not everyone can have it, at least not for long. Power usually plays out as a zero-sum game.

Yet power is not a fixed entity, notes Ena Inesi, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS): “What makes it interesting to study is that it’s situationally dependent. The same person who holds the power in one area may have no power in another. Think of the
CEO who goes home to a screaming child. It’s about which resource is important at that moment and who has greater access to it.

“Power is shifting, it’s fleeting. It’s relative and it’s always about what matters in that moment – what is the value currency?” The power dynamic extends beyond the individual, she adds: “How does it happen that someone gets away with bad behaviour? Because they are enabled by people around them.” Consider the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. He had the power to make or break
women’s careers: “He was the gatekeeper to something that was incredibly valuable to them. Most of these women were very early on in their careers, so the power discrepancy was massive.”

Power exaggerates our personality traits

Is it possible not to be corrupted by power? Perhaps. “Power doesn’t necessarily turn you into a bad person,” explains Dr Inesi. “It tends to free us to act more in line with personal goals. So, if you’re high on the likely-to-sexually-harass scale and you get into a position of power, you’re more likely to do it. At the same time, if you tend to be a communal, generous person, in power you will likely act more this way.” In situations where there is a strong power hierarchy, she suggests, the exaggeration is more apparent because several sources of power (money, respect, influence) are in alignment – “which is where you see these extreme disinhibited behaviours”.

Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, has identified what he calls the “power paradox”. People often ascend to power through good qualities, he points out, but lose them once they’ve made it. The burdens of power – the responsibility, the many demands on your time – take their toll. You become more instrumental in your interactions because you don’t have the luxury of spending 30 minutes chatting before you get to the point.

Keltner writes: “We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst. We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”

Keltner argues that our traditional understanding of power is outdated and the
modern world is governed by a softer kind: “Power shapes our every interaction, from those between parents and children to those between work colleagues. Power is the medium through which we relate to one another. Power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others.”

Five ways to gain power and influence

Want to get to the top? Eliot Sherman, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, offers this advice

1. Learn to influence others- Getting ahead at the start of your career is about developing and demonstrating competence. But after a while advancement becomes about how well you can influence others. Can you get them on board for a new approach to solving a problem? Can you get them to reach a consensus? Having the right answer isn’t enough. You need to be able to read a room, understand people’s motivations and figure out how to get them on side.

2. Understand cultural differences- Cultural differences shape the way people view power. In most Western cultures people see power as a way to reach their own personal goals, but in some
Eastern cultures power can be constraining, with executives feeling responsible for others’ wellbeing. About 10 years ago the CEO of Japan Airlines cut his salary to US$90,000, got rid of his office and started eating in the cafeteria. Can you imagine the head of a US investment bank doing that?

3. Stay hungry- People say the ideal colleague is someone who thinks about and helps others. But that’s not the whole story. Yes, people want to work with someone who shares their goals and is reliable. But
senior people also want a colleague who is hungry. They’re always looking for signals to see if you’re really committed. They need to feel confident in you to be comfortable investing in you.

4. Know the politics- Understanding how office politics work is important if you want to climb higher in the organisation. You have to gather knowledge about people’s stance on salient issues or past conflicts in the firm, especially if you’ve joined recently. People may be reluctant to answer these sensitive questions candidly, so pick the right time and place to ask. And remember, if people share sensitive information with you, they’ll expect you to reciprocate.

5. Acknowledge the
gender issue- Having children makes it harder for women to gain power. They often take family leave just as their career is taking off and they still tend to provide more childcare than their partners. Society tells women they can get ahead but their performance has to be exemplary and they must be the perfect parent. That’s a pretty unrealistic target.


Source: London Business School, dated 13. August.2018 summarized.

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