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 expanded options of “like” 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 met 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.

2.    Kindness: They cooperate, share, express appreciation and dignify other people.

3.    Focus: They establish shared goals and rules, a clear purpose and keep people on task.

4.    Calmness: Through their actions and communication, they instill calm and perspective.

5.    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.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.