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.”
How can the good gain power?
But how do you get there without pushing your rivals out of the way? Jeﬀrey Pfeﬀer, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Stanford University and author of Power: Why Some People Have It – And Others Don’t, has a robust answer: just do what it takes: “The biggest barrier to our having power is ourselves. Often people just aren’t willing to make the trade-oﬀ s that it takes to have power.”
One trade-oﬀ is between being liked and getting things done. “As soon as you make a decision, some people will like it and some people won’t. We worry excessively about what others, particularly peers, think about us. But in a very simple, common-sense way, your peers are your competitors,” he points out. Another trade-oﬀ is how you spend your time: “To be in a position of power you have to pay a price. Am I willing to work this hard and to interact with the people I need to interact with, not the people I want to interact with?”
Perhaps most damagingly, we fondly imagine we live in a just world – which means we are less vigilant and strategic than we should be: “People say, ‘These people will get it in the end! Their bad behaviour will catch up with them!’ But the [truth is that the] world is not fair.”
Dr Pfeﬀer cites US educationalist John Gardner: “Power has such a bad name that many good people persuade themselves they want nothing to do with it. But power is simply the capacity to bring about certain intended consequences in the behaviour of others.” So, don’t flinch from it. Pay particular attention, he suggests, to people in your organisation who have made it to the top without having any identifiable skills at all. What they have is political smarts – and that’s what good people need to acquire above all.
The illusion of control
What eﬀect does power have on an individual? “A common finding is that being endowed with power leads to action,” says Niro Sivanathan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS. “People who feel powerful act on their environment more often than those who don’t.” He cites a classic study where, presented with “one last cookie” on a plate, the most powerful person will happily ignore polite convention and just reach out and eat it (often messily, with their mouth open).
But the eﬀects of power go beyond this. Dr Sivanathan and his colleagues carried out one study in which lab volunteers were made to believe they had diﬀerent amounts of power and were then invited to call out a number on a dice. If the number came up when the dice was rolled, they gained a small bonus. Given the choice whether to roll the dice themselves or have the experimenter do it, “We found that individuals who feel a psychological sense of power are far more likely to say they want to roll the dice themselves – they imagine they can have control over an uncontrollable event,” says Dr Sivanathan: “Power seems to infect the mind with a sense of having greater control than you actually do” – which may be one reason why power leads to its own demise.
His research indicates that power leads to both the illusion of control and a sense of overconfidence. Sometimes this manifests in an increased display of the “better-than-average eﬀect”, the classic example of which is the 90% of road users who rate themselves above-average drivers. The repeated finding is that we believe we are better than others and make over precise estimates in, say, how well an investment or stocks will perform.
What else aﬀects how a person behaves once they have power? “The harder you have to fi ght to get to the top, the more entitled you feel once you get there to engage in behaviours that would be considered counter-normative or unethical,” says Dr Sivanathan. Leaders who don’t fall for their own hype are rare. One such was Barack Obama. “I actually found I became more humble the longer I was in oﬃce,” he said. He found being president strangely liberating – even though you make a mistake every day, people see you fail and “large portions of the country think you’re an idiot”. Contrast this to President Trump’s insistence on his own perfect genius...
One reason the powerful become overconfident is that no one dares to give them bad news, fuelling their illusion of control, says Dr Sivanathan. Structural checks and balances can help. Many organisations have governance mechanisms and incentive structures to dissuade those in power from abusing it, limiting the urge to veer oﬀ course. The US political system, for example, is designed to ensure that power isn’t too concentrated in one individual. President Trump is currently working on breaking down those systems.