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What it means to have power—and how to reclaim it

We all know what it looks like to use power badly. A new book shows us how it can be used well.

What it means to have power—and how to reclaim it
[Photo: fauxels/Pexels]

Power is not a dirty word. Power is a fact of life. Power, according to social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, exists in every relationship—whether we like that idea or not—and to be effective in any role, power needs to be understood. “Power differences are everywhere,” writes Gruenfeld, the Joseph McDonald Professor and professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Not just at work, but at home, in our marriages, with our siblings, with our friend groups. . . . In society more broadly, power is a central organizing force.”

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Inspired by the popular Stanford GSB course of the same name, Gruenfeld‘s new book, Acting With Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe, dismantles our misconceptions about the word, shows us how it’s about connection as well as control, and outlines what it means to use power well.

Gruenfeld recently sat for an interview with Insights by Stanford Business. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How is power misunderstood?

Deborah Gruenfeld: There’s this idea that if you can find a way to feel more powerful, you’ll actually be more powerful. But our feelings have little to do with it. Your power depends on other people’s feelings—do they need you, do they fear you, do they feel obligated to you, do they trust and respect you? That is where our power comes from—our capacity to affect other people’s feelings. So what matters most is how we act with the power we already have, despite our feelings, and our impact on other people.

Another misconception is that we tend to think of power as the answer to our powerless feelings, like a resource for personal consumption and self-enhancement. But if you look at power out in the world, in a human context or even in an animal context, what you see is that power has another purpose. It’s a resource that exists for the protection of groups. Nobody has power in the absence of relationships to other people. It is always relational; it depends on others’ deference. Power is granted, and individuals are elevated into positions of power—in the animal world you can see it very clearly—because groups need protectors. We need certain individuals to take on the special kinds of risks and responsibilities that come with power to protect the group. And in exchange for taking on those responsibilities, we give power-holders special rights and privileges.

If you take people out of their exchange relationships, the power doesn’t go with them. When you’re the CEO in a meeting with your team, you have a lot of power, and everybody writes down everything you say, they do what you tell them to, but when you go home and deal with your teenagers, you can’t expect the same reactions. Power doesn’t always translate outside of the context where it is granted.

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You say our power is about “winning battles with ourselves.” What are some common battles you see people fighting with themselves daily?

D.G.: The big problem most professionals face, heightened when dealing with power, is managing self-conscious energy. We all want to look powerful, in charge and in control, but we often feel powerless—we have residual childhood insecurities about whether we are important, worthy of love and respect, and capable. So we fight with ourselves about how we should behave, what we are entitled to do, and whether we can be successful. This energy is a drag, it feels terrible, and it interferes with our effectiveness as social actors.

How can we win those battles and step into our own power?

D.G.: Move your attention off yourself. This is one of the ways that professional actors stay in the moment: They focus very intentionally on the other person in the scene, not on the audience. There are many things we can’t control in life, but one we can, with discipline and practice, is where our attention goes.

Define your social objective. Keep your focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and define it in terms of the other person. Do you want the person to trust your expertise and authority? Do you want the person to feel understood? To do what you say without further discussion? You try to take actions in the moment that will affect others in the way you hope. And understand that your choices will help you accomplish some objectives while hindering others.

Get in role. We place a lot of value on the idea of being ourselves. But the ability to see ourselves through others’ eyes is a very important skill. It’s actually a milestone of developmental maturity. In all kinds of groups, individuals who behave in ways that are expected and socially desirable are making the choice to place group goals ahead of individual goals. It’s a key basis of trust. So when you are the expert in the room, it’s important to act that way.

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Prepare with a mantra. Use a short phrase to prepare for a high-stakes situation that puts you in the right frame of mind. “I’m glad to be here, and I know what I know” is a class favorite. Replace the nervous mind chatter such as “I just want to get through this” or “I hope they like me” to “I’m here for you,” or even “I like you.”

Leaders are often encouraged to present the most authentic version of themselves, but you write that we must act in a way that doesn’t feel like us at times. How does that lead to power?

D.G.: The idea of authenticity has become very popular, and it resonates in our culture because we value this idea that we have a defined self that should be the same from one situation to the next. The thing about authenticity is that a lot of times our authentic selves are defined in terms of our vulnerabilities. Often when we say we want to be authentic, it means we want to do something that feels safe because it’s what we always do to protect ourselves.

I’m more committed to the idea of being responsible than authentic—my authentic self can be insecure at times, whereas my responsible self has to be a source of security for others. It’s a choice to get out of your head and stay in touch with social reality.

Your power defines you to other people; they are affected by it more than you are. If you are the boss, the parent, the team leader, and even if you aren’t completely secure in those roles, you have to play your part. You want to do whatever it takes to make others feel secure. Sometimes this requires being tougher, less tolerant, less friendly than normal—to let people know, “I’ve got this.” And sometimes it means backing off, slowing down, showing others respect by really listening, even if that makes you feel weak.

So much in our world has changed in the wake of the COVID-19 health crisis. How does power play into the principled leadership we are in need of right now?

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D.G.: There are so many examples. The first has to do with the upside of a command-and-control approach to using power. You see the benefits now in a way that most Americans don’t usually appreciate: The hierarchy works when you need people to pull together, get in the boat, and pick up an oar.

We are witnessing the cost of our hands-off, every-person-for-him-or-herself culture. To stop the spread of a pandemic, individuals should not be deciding for themselves when or whether to engage in social distancing. It has to be a controlled and coordinated effort. The same will be true for restarting the economy. It should be coordinated from the top down.

The upside that I’m seeing in our country is also predictable, though: When there is a power vacuum at the top, people rise to fill it. States, entrepreneurs, and companies are stepping up and changing gears, seeking opportunities to use the power they have to make a difference.

The other very important theme has to do with whether we are capable of seeing ourselves as actors in a bigger drama, with responsibility for one another. Some Americans are struggling with this—we only think in terms of self-interest and freedom. It’s an irresponsible way to use the power we all have to affect one another’s outcomes in this situation.

It is also very interesting to look at the example of Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York. He’s at the epicenter of the crisis and understands the theater of it. Cuomo conducts briefings every day, with everyone tuning in. He is a base of security, showing up with his jacket with the seal on it, matter-of-fact, in charge. It is very reassuring.

Our president, meanwhile, is delivering off-the-cuff platitudes, trying to defend himself against tough questions by reporters. I have a sense he is really mostly thinking of himself and how he is faring. And watching his anxiety leaking out makes me feel more anxious.

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You write, “No matter who you are, what role you are in, or what stage you are on, the most important person in the scene is never you.” There are many parallels in your book between actors and leaders. How can shifting to an “actor’s mindset” help us take on new roles?

D.G.: Actors are people like the rest of us; they have insecurities. Most have never been a king or queen, for example. But their job is to tell the truth about what it is to live in that person’s shoes. They have to transform themselves, but it has to be truthful. This is how we can think about it too.

Actors use their senses and their imagination to immerse themselves in a new role and make it their own. They dress the part, carry the right props, find ways to relate to the character they are playing. Some of it is scripted—you have to make an entrance at the right time in the right place, sprinkle holy water, address the troops—but it can and should also be personal. That is the artistry of acting, and of leadership.


This piece was originally published by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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