Four Key Skills to Acquire Power

Tahl Raz is the co-author of Never Eat Alone and the host of myGreenlight’s Social Capitalist series. Click here for the full transcript from the interview: Social Capitalist Transcript – Jeffrey Pfeffer. Click here for the audio recording.

You won’t find the nitty-gritty realities of career advancement in most business self-help books and you won’t find it in the autobiographical leadership tomes of America’s most revered CEOs. You won’t find out what they really did to get to the top or how they really operated once they got there because so much of those realities have to do with power.

Getting and using power can be an ugly sport that just doesn’t jibe with the legacies CEOs want to leave. For academics and gurus, maybe it’s political correctness or an earnest desire of how things ought to be, but they too produce books heavy on feel-good notions like following your inner compass and the importance of humility. These lessons are important, but fall short on prescriptions for the work world as it really is.

To put it bluntly: the world is not just, your workplace is not fair, and how smart you are, how well you do your job, or how many people think you’re swell has far less to do with your success than almost anyone is willing to tell you.

Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the willing, and he shared those often unspoken power rules on a recent eye-opening session of the Social Capitalist. An outspoken truth-teller and academic rebel willing to question the orthodoxy, Professor Pfeffer proves again with his book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Other’s Don’t, why he’s one of our very top thinkers in management theory. (MyGreenlight members can click here to download the MP3 of my interview with Pfeffer.)

It’s natural to assume that the powerful of any organization have power because they’ve earned it through performance. But studies have shown it’s actually the other way around – power creates peak performance.

Pfeffer outlines four skills useful in acquiring power:

1. Self-knowledge and a Reflective Mindset: Obtaining power is in part theatre. The stage is your reputation and the steps to creating it are straightforward: make a good early impression, cultivate an image by focusing on your strengths, use media and events to help build your visibility, and create a large enough network of people who will sing your praises. But what kind of impression do you make now? What are the strengths on which to build your image? Do you look people directly in the eye, which connotes not only power but also honesty and directness, or do you look down and project weakness? Being objective about yourself in the moments in which you interact, paying attention to your strengths and weaknesses and how you’re viewed by people, are critical if you’re to adapt and evolve your reputation.

2. Confidence and the Ability to Project Self-assurance: Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken. We take authority through the way we act, talk, and appear. You need to project confidence and assurance, even if you aren’t sure what you’re doing. Any one particular event is less important than your reaction to it: Are you upbeat? Are you projecting sure-handed confidence? To convey that everything is fine and under your control, even under dire circumstances, often means acting in ways contrary to your real feelings. Most people can’t do this, which is exactly what makes it so valuable a skill.  But remember: just as important as the skill itself is making sure the right people notice. The best way to ensure those at higher levels know what you are achieving is to tell them. The importance of standing out contradicts much conventional wisdom. Fact is there isn’t a leader anywhere who hasn’t told the right person or people at the right time, “I’m the greatest and here’s why you need me for this job.”

3. The Ability to Read Others and Empathize with Their Point of View. Many of Pfeffer’s strategies revolve around self-enhancement—the idea that people like to feel good about themselves and do things to ensure that result. The surest way to build a better power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves. Is this just a fancy way of telling us we should all be ass-kissers? Not entirely. The key is to understand what matters to those around you. Genuine flattery is certainly effective, but so is asking for help or going out of your way to do a seemingly small task—a bit of extracurricular research into an interest of your boss, attending a birthday party or even a funeral of a colleague, or visiting them or their family members when they are ill.

4. Capacity to Tolerate Conflict. You have to be willing to scrap. Because most people are conflict-averse, they avoid difficult situations and difficult people, frequently acceding to requests or changing their positions rather than paying the emotional price of standing up for themselves and their views. If you can handle difficult and stress-filled situations effectively, you have an advantage over most people. Powerful people get things done, and to get things done it’s almost universally assumed that sooner or later push will come to shove and the powerful will be on the right side of that equation. That’s probably why studies show that the people we perceive to be the most competent are also those that are perceived to be a little tough, and even mean.

The reality is that we all exist in hierarchical settings where there are always competitors for status and advancement.  So assert yourself and actively promote your own interests. You don’t need to become a ruthless power-mongering monster, just a little more aware of the real rules of the game and a little more confident that you have what it takes to be a player.

What about you: Are you playing the power game? Got tips for doing it without being a bully?

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