How We Gain Power And Influence: Science’s Surprising Answer

In the late 19th Century, British historian, Lord Acton, famously asserted that “power corrupts.” And we surely needn’t look too deeply within business, politics and every day life to find examples that validate this timeless truth.

But new research from U.C. Berkeley social scientist, Dacher Keltner, confirms something few of us may ever have personally acknowledged with regard to Lord Acton’s insight: When we ourselves are given positions of power, we’re no less prone to abuse it.

In the American workplace today, over half of workers admit to quitting jobs in order to flee a power-abusing boss. And, of course, employee job satisfaction and engagement are mired in true crisis levels. What Keltner’s work reveals is that our common ways of applying power in managing people deserves much of the blame for these outcomes.

For the past two decades, Keltner has been studying human emotions and how they influence behavior. Tied to this work, he advised Pixar Studios in the making of their Academy Award-winning animated film, “Inside Out,” and guided Facebook executives in creating their new emoticons. And in his new book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain And Lose Influence, he explains why our traditional beliefs on leadership power must be tossed away if our goal is to succeed in motivating 21st Century workers.

I recently visited with Keltner and asked him to explain how our current beliefs about power were formed – and what new understanding must replace them. His conclusions have profound implications to the future of workplace leadership.

We’ve Held The Same Views On Power For 400 Years

“Our cultural understanding of power has been deeply shaped by Niccolò Machiavelli and his 16th Century book, The Prince,” Keltner told me. “Hundreds of thousands of students read this every year, and it’s a book that teaches that power – in its essence – is about force, deception and disregard for people.”

It may be hard for any of us to accept that our own use of power could at times be coercive, self-serving or Machiavellian, but Keltner’s “Cookie Monster” experiment proves quite effective at indicating otherwise:

Three people at a time are brought into a room and told they will be working together to complete a small project. Before the work begins, one of the participants (randomly selected) is told that they have been put in charge. About halfway through the task, a plate of four cookies is brought into the room, and each person is given one to eat. But after the group is asked who should get the last cookie, the “powerful” person not only repeatedly takes it, but savors it in front of the others.

“Give any person a little feeling of power,” Keltner says, “and we become more focused on our own desires than on others. What this experiment confirms is that each and every one of us is vulnerable to it: abusing power, leading by fear, and stressing people out.” 

We Start Off With Good Intentions, And Then…

Research shows that most people gain power by enhancing the lives of others. But when they get into power, there’s a pull that leads them to forfeiting the very skills that enabled them to gain power in the first place.

They lose empathy, generosity, open-mindedness and caring about others. In what Keltner calls the “power paradox,” once most people get a little taste of success, they stop doing the things that are foundational to good leadership. All of a sudden they lose touch with how others feel and treat people rudely.

“People tell me all the time how they experience this in their own organizations,” says Keltner. “As one person described it, ‘all of a sudden my boss has forgotten my name, interrupts me and doesn’t listen. It’s total bullshit.’”

The Times Have Changed, But We Haven’t

Because of the TV show, Mad Men, most of us are very familiar with how workplaces were run 50 years ago. As Keltner describes it, “Manly men, very top down, hierarchical – and Machiavellianism prevailed.”

Today, of course, companies employ far more women, the work people perform demands far more collaboration and interdependence – and business has become considerably more multi-cultural and complicated. “Yet with all these broad social changes,” Keltner says, “Machiavellianism continues to take hold of our imaginations. It’s an idea that’s still around and motivates workplace leadership around the globe. But we’ve reached the point where we must question its continued utility within our organizations, and the times.”

People Who Rise To Power Today Care For The Success And Well-Being Of Others

Keltner’s modern view of power is that it’s now conferred upon us rather than grabbed. We no longer earn power by being self-focused, but by consistently acting in ways that improve the lives of others. Power is expressed in advocacy, compassion, respect, attentiveness to human feelings, and gratitude toward others.

“We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last,” Keltner told me, “and that one must step on others to rise in the ranks. But nothing could be further from the truth.“

Numerous experiments back up this assertion and reveal that people who attain enduring power today exhibit five behaviors that inherently balance mind and heart:

  1. Enthusiasm: They express interest in others, advocate on their behalf and take joy in their achievements.
  1. Kindness: They cooperate, share, express appreciation and dignify other people.
  1. Focus: They establish shared goals and rules, a clear purpose and keep people on task.
  1. Calmness: Through their actions and communication, they instill calm and perspective.
  1. Openness: They display empathy and a disciplined process of listening attentively.

“Over 70 studies have shown that people who rise in power – whether it be in business, education or the military – consistently embody these qualities,” Keltner says. “And when individuals use their power to advance the greater good, the evidence is also clear that they and the people they empower prove to be happier, healthier and sustainably more productive.”

Niccolò Machiavelli famously said that “It is better to be feared than loved,” while also expressing that “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” What science now serves to prove is that it’s only on the latter point that Machiavelli was right.

A version of this post was first published on LinkedIn. 

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Reenfranchising Your Company’s Disenfranchised

If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that I may have overestimated how tuned in I am to large segments of the population. I would not call this group a silent majority (as they are neither “silent” nor a “majority”), but recent political events have reinforced my need to engage and find common ground with those who feel alienated.

In his recent movie, Imperium. Daniel Radcliffe plays a FBI agent who goes undercover in a white-supremacy group. According to Radcliffe, “…my biggest takeaway from this film is that, as much as we want to demonize these people and in a way demonize their views, we should try and find a way of getting them into this conversation, unfortunately as awful as that sounds, because the more you ostracize them and aggressively dismiss them, the more it just plays into their worldview that everything is a conspiracy against them.”

Before you send me your oppositional emails, let me be clear: I am not equating, comparing, or in any way associating those who feel disenfranchised with white supremacists or racists-at-large. What I am saying is that Radcliffe makes a valid point about demonizing people without engaging in a conversation to understand their point of view.

Imperium’s Director, Daniel Ragussis, added that characterizing those on the fringe with insults like “monster” is not helpful.—“They don’t give you any access as to the mechanism that’s going on there and why the people are behaving the way they are. I think if you’re going to try to dismantle that or change it, you have to understand what’s going on and what’s happening.”

A mutually beneficial workplace culture is not determined solely by the leaders; the employees ultimately decide what practices and habits they will adhere to… and this includes those who don’t feel welcomed to participate. Therefore, companies must focus their resources to involve these individuals.

To help us encourage those who believe they are estranged from the decision makers, we must be mindful of one important concept: Don’t confuse feeling disenfranchised with feeling disengaged. The disengaged are not willing to put in extra effort for success. They don’t like work and they aren’t afraid to show it. The disenfranchised, on the other hand, believe they are deprived of rights and/or privileges. They want to contribute, but either don’t know how to initiate, don’t think they are allowed, or don’t feel welcomed into the process.

To reenfranchise, start by listening to their concerns. Actually, that’s too easy. Your really need to start by withholding judgment. It’s easy to dismiss those who disagree with us, especially when they are not in a position of power. An effective leader, however, cannot disparage or ostracize these individuals. They are part of the organization, so either treat them like they are part of the organization or release them from your condemnatory sentencing.

Once you are able to withhold judgment, you can begin listening to their concerns. Schedule one-on-one’s to figure out what they need to feel embraced. Ask questions, focus on their concerns, and formulate an ongoing plan.

After you know their hindrances and have a plan in place, it is your responsibility as the leader to change how you manage. However you led before resulted in a disenfranchised populace, so figure out what you can do differently to be more inclusive. And follow up frequently to ensure that your efforts are effective.

If attitude is an indication of success (and it is) you will get more bang for your buck if you concentrate on reenfranchising the disenfranchised then engaging the disengagement. Since the disenfranchised crave involvement, involve them. If you don’t, they will find their voice, with or without you. Why wait for them to be an organized opposition? Make them allies and strengthen your team.

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