A recent book by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer offers many insights about power in organizations: how to gain it and how to hold on to it once you have it. It’s based on real world observation and research, not on theory, abstraction or political correctness. As such, some of his observations may be at odds with what you see in the popular literature and press. And, actually, he warns that most of the leadership literature can be hazardous to your health because it doesn’t reflect the realities of organizational life. Some people won’t like his observations, but having done a bit of research in this area myself, I see very little to quibble about. A recent review of this work in The Economist suggested that this is one of the very few books on management and leadership that actually offer helpful advice.
Pfeffer makes the case for trying to expand your base of power because many good things come from it, not the least of which are higher levels of physical health and wellbeing. And then there’s the money. Listed below are some of the keys to success along the path to power he presents in the book.
- Remember, the world isn’t fair and doesn’t care about your success. If you don’t learn to increase your base of power, others will – and they won’t have your best interests at heart.
- You need to get noticed and rise above the organizational noise.
- Make sure people know about your successes. And if you can define the criteria for success, you’ll have the advantage.
- Be sure you know what success looks like in your boss’s eyes…and in those of his/her boss.
- Get good at some of the Dale Carnegie things and learn to make people feel good about themselves (it’ll make them feel better about you).
- Flattery works. Even when people know you’re doing it. And more flattery works even better. Deal with it.
- Tolerate and become comfortable with conflict. But don’t be a jerk.
- Brainpower and performance will help you to gain power only up to a point. How you play your cards and who you develop relationships with are equally or more important as you get closer to the top.
- If you have the chance, pick a department or group with high influence and power. However, sometimes the path to the top can be found through indirect routes if you develop your alliances nodes of information. And if you learn to use them well.
- Ask for stuff. We enjoy helping others. It makes us feel powerful and it flatters us to be asked. And we like those we help.
- Get over yourself. Yes, some of this may sound manipulative and you may be uncomfortable asking for things directly. But in reality, people aren’t paying much attention to you. They’re generally wrapped up in themselves, so don’t worry too much about how things look. But don’t be unethical. You need to build trust for full success, so be careful of anything that would taint your reputation.
- Find a gap and fill it. Reach out and create something. Don’t be afraid to break the rules when you’re just starting out – you’ll get noticed and thought of as innovative. But don’t be stupid about it.
- Networking is important. And it is a learned skill, even if you’re painfully shy. Again, get over yourself.
- Learn to project power. Not only in your speech and mannerisms, but in your dress. It’s another learnable skill. Get some image coaching if you need it. You only get one chance for the first impression and you need to realize that image becomes reality over time.
- Learn to fight and don’t take things personally. But do everything you can do to make relationships work. In fact, at a certain level, you will simply have to work effectively with some people you may really dislike.
- Know yourself, your strengths and limits. And be careful what you wish for. There are real costs to gaining and maintaining power, so look at what life is really like at the top and prepare for it.
- When you’re at the top, stay vigilant (it’s not paranoia – they really are after you) but stay humble (you are replaceable and you need to know when to quit, hopefully on your own terms).
Although the principles of gaining power allow narcissists, psychopaths and Machiavellians to rise, those traits are also associated with an eventual loss of power. One of the keys to understanding and dealing with the struggle for power is to lose your misguided faith that this is a just world. The good guys don’t always win and the bad guys sometimes do. Maybe often do. But if they’ve made too many enemies on the way up, even if they bring in their staunch loyalists, people will find creative ways to even the score. These heads are indeed likely to be uneasy wearing the crown. The world may not be just, but people have long memories and hold grudges. They like to balance things out however they can. If you don’t have much power, you’re likely to find underground ways to resist people you don’t like or trust.
The core principles of influence – credibility (expertise and trustworthiness) and likability – are important factors that allow a person to hold on to power over time. The most effective leaders realize that power can corrupt even the most well-intentioned person and that you don’t get good feedback when you’re in a position of power. Effective leadership in a high level position requires the humility to seek out good data. You never know as much as you think you do – and most of the stuff people tell you is filtered. They will flatter you and, even though you may realize it, you’re still human and still subject to believing your good press. So it helps to have people who can give accurate feedback, unvarnished data and reasoned opinion. That usually only comes from people who don’t have a dog in the fight – people who know you in a different context, who knew you in previous lives or who aren’t inside your organization.
Power. It’s not just for a**holes anymore. Go for it.