Are Your Beliefs About Power Leaving You Powerless?

Do you hunger for more power or tend to shy away from it?  Let’s be honest, power doesn’t have such a great reputation, and you wouldn’t be alone if you shared the sentiments of Lord Acton’s famous words: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But are your beliefs about power leaving you powerless?

Personally, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the idea of power.  Growing up in big organizations I’d had plenty of opportunities to see how power could be used for good and for bad.  As I moved up the corporate ladder to a certain degree I had power bestowed upon me by my seniority and responsibilities, but I always feared that if I grew too attached to these titles it might go to my head, and I’d lose touch with the kind of leader I really wanted to be.

But what if I’d completely misunderstood how power was really gained and what it could be used for?

“Simply put power is your capacity to influence the lives of other people,” explained Professor Dacher Keltner, from UC Berkeley, faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence when I interviewed him recently. “And when you use your power to shape others’ lives for the better you feel more connected to the world and are happier.”

It turns out that you gain power through others – by connecting with people, being concerned about their welfare, showing kindness, and having the empathy to know what they’re feeling and thinking.  And while sometimes this may take being quiet and thoughtful, it also takes the courage to speak up and let your views be heard, to ask difficult questions, and offer bold ideas.

The idea that power is our ability to positively impact others, finally had me sitting up straight and wondering what I could do to gain more.

In fact, Dacher’s research suggests that the truly great leaders through history, from hunter-gatherer societies to modern day politicians are the ones who are driven by how they can serve and give to others.  And this is true not only in the political sphere, but between friends, romantic partners, families and in workplaces as power dynamics can be found everywhere.

It’s also important to understand that feeling powerful or powerless affects the way your mind and body show up. For example, when you feel powerless studies suggest that it activates your psychological and behavioral inhibition system, making you more attuned to threats and causing you to feel more anxious, pessimistic and open to social pressure that inhibits us.  But when you feel powerful, it activates your psychological and behavioral approach system, which helps you to feel free – in control, unthreatened and safe – and more positive, optimistic and unrestricted by social pressures.

So why does power have such a bad reputation?

Unfortunately while you gain power through actions that advance the interests of others, it appears that when you start to feel powerful these qualities can begin to fade.  You stop listening, stop paying attention to people carefully, stop sharing, and you start protecting your resources, and focus on reaping the rewards that serve yourself but not always others.  For example, Dacher’s research suggests if you’re a member of a group and share resources people will follow you.  But once you feel powerful in that group, you’re more likely to keep more of the resources to yourself.

Dacher has also found that as power accrues you often can become more impulsive and socially inappropriate.  And if you’re in a position of corporate power you are three times as likely to start interrupting coworkers, to multitask during meetings, to raise your voice and to say insulting things at the office.

“The paradox is that you gain power by doing good things for others and then lose your willingness to continue doing those good things once you have power,” says Dacher.  “And the consequences can be far-reaching, as it ultimately undermines your influence and drags down the engagement and performance people.”

So how can you avoid the power paradox?

Dacher offers three suggestions for not letting power corrupt you.

  • Stay focused on others – generosity, gratitude, empathy and kindness are essential for enduring power. Show respect and empathy when you’re engaging with others by asking questions and mindfully listening to what they are saying.  Demonstrate with your body language that you are taking in their words and feelings, and not trying to assert your own views.

Express your gratitude and appreciation of others by recognizing the good work they do and how essential they are in your organization.   Just by saying “thank you” as a leader and sharing resources, the people you’re managing will do better.  However, try to make sure that your generosity is attuned to the people you’re working with and the context, and set yourself some boundaries to avoid the risk of exploitation.

  • Practice humility – regard your power to make people’s lives better as a great privilege. Humility is a virtue that can be gained by practice.  For example, let other people speak before you speak, hold your body as a leader in a modest way, and regularly reach out to others who know more than you.  Dacher has found that you can also do things in your personal life – going out and finding awe in nature, symphonies or the wonder of other people to increase your humility.
  • Be mindful of your power– it can be easy to underestimate the effects of your power on others.  Studies suggest that less powerful people are always attending to powerful people and can be stressed out by their actions.  So it’s important to keep this awareness, and approach others with more gentleness and thoughtfulness.

Become aware of the rush of omnipotence, where you feel as though you can do anything and whatever happens other people will line up behind you.  These feelings can lead you to risky and inappropriate social behavior.  If power is making you feel like you’re the master of the universe, it’s perhaps a sign that it’s time to take a step back and reflect on how you want to positively impact others.

How can you cultivate power through the practice of respect, empathy and humility for others?