Do you have a healthy relationship with Power?

Power is a complex and vastly misinterpreted topic. I share experiences blended with insights from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s “Power”.

Power and influence are an existential reality. You may not like power, but you cannot deny that it plays an important role in shaping lives around us. A healthy relationship with power can improve your chances of organisational success.

Most people look at power with contempt

According to the works of Bennis and Nanus, 1985, power is the most essential and the most distrusted element for human progress.

Power has such a bad name, most of us want nothing to do with it.

John Gardiner, 1990

This could be a result of perceived abuses of power. For instance, disillusionment with organisational politics can ensue if you assume the world to be “fair & just”. Reality hits, when you observe an organisational move and think that it’s dirty politics. Whereas the move, perhaps a reorganisation, might be simply balancing of risk that is necessary for the company.

The contempt of power can also be down to perceived absence of power. For instance, we despise political leaders for not doing enough in a crisis. While that might be true in some cases, in others it could simply be communication failure or that you simply don’t know the nuances.

Not quite! Politics is an instrument for good even though it contains many bad Apples.
Photo by Brian Wertheim

In either case, the “just/fair” worldview is naive. There are usually multiple factors at play. Power & influence play an extremely important role in determining outcomes. This is not only applicable to organisations of all sizes, but also to large democracies, adhocracies, and autocracies.

Psychology of power

As touched upon before, we often tend to look at the world as a fair place and assume people deserve what they get, pleasure or suffering! For example, sexual abuse victims often get flak for how they dressed-up provocatively. I’m not suggesting that everyone does this, but a large section of society does.

This creates distortion of reality, deviating from real issues. For instance, many blame personal failure on themselves. I failed, because I must have been terrible. This logic precludes any scope for improvement and subsequent success.

A decline mindset not only repels power, but also opens door to tyranny.

Abhi Shah

According to Robert Cialdini, 2007, We turn off our thinking when it comes to authority figures and go into compliance mode. This mindless compliance is debilitating. We neither critically analyse authority nor decisions. All authority figures are prone to biases and errors of judgment. We often wrongly assume that authority figures possess superior knowledge.

Notice carefully, we are different with authority figures!
Photo by Hunters Race

To make things interesting, we tend to look at successful people as good and unsuccessful people as bad. Therefore we also associate success with power. Needless to say, this is a fallacy. In my observation, many people assume that their performance is sufficient to gain power & influence. People tend to leave too much to chance and fail to manage their careers.

Types of power

Let us quickly look at different types of power.

  1. Positional power is what you gain from formal authority of hierarchy.
  2. Referent power is what you carry as your personality and your brand.
  3. Connection power is basically drawn from your network. If you are well-connected, it is considered a good proxy.
  4. Reward power is where you have the resources that you can control and incentivise people with.
  5. Coercion power is self-explanatory. Worth a mention that it is not very effective in long term.
  6. Information power is when you trade information for influence. Information does not warrant expertise.
  7. Expert power is when you have knowledge and skills that is scarce.

What makes some people more powerful than others

This is probably the most actionable aspect of power. Pfeiffer describes it beautifully.

Extraordinary Will

People with Power show boundless energy. They are optimistic, they do not engage in negative talk, or gossip. They show initiative and are never shy to roll-up their sleeves. This is an infectious quality and naturally makes you a better choice over others while taking a pick.

Focus is a fabulous leading indicator too. While a lot of talented people will try to do too many things, people who focus and really choose things for positive impact on the organisation achieve meaningful results.

Focus is the mother of all self-improvements Photo by Paul Skorupskas

Finally, ambition is underrated, but it shows vision, it shows that you have the audacity to dream and challenge the status quo.

In summary, will is determined by energy, focus, and ambition.

Relentless Skill Building

I have discussed self-awareness at length in my other post. Self-awareness shows a reflective mindset which is an essential quality before you can weild power effectively.

Most senior leaders & promising future leaders I have met have a voracious appetite for reading, learning and applying knowledge.

Abhi Shah

This ability to enhance your skills at scale is an outstanding leading indicator towards acquiring power.

Confidence also, is a brilliant way to gain influence. People likely associate power with acting confidently. Especially when this is coupled with rest of the qualities described above.

In addition to this, ability to read people, and demonstrating empathy matter tremendously.

Power favours those who handle conflict effectively

We tend to associate anger and assertiveness with power. Therefore leaders who avoid conflict are unlikely be seen as worthy of power.

Fortune favours the brave! Photo by Sushil Nash

Interestingly, we tend to forgive those people we are constantly connected with.

People with power are not afraid of asking for help

Familiarity principle (Cialdini, 2007) implies that we should not shy away from interacting with senior stakeholders. Least because of apprehensions about power! Asking for help is actually flattering for the authority figure in question. However, don’t do it for the sake of doing it. Do it genuinely, with someone that can genuinely help.

Likability is not a condition for power

Psychology tells us that people’s support often depends on whether you are winning or ascending not necessarily on whether you are likeable. While this may sound harsh, think of it this way. Would you rather be universally likeable and have no influence or would be selectively likeable and have tons of influence?

Likability is like a Unicorn – Cute but not real… Photo by Annie Spratt

People pleasers don’t do well in the corridors of power as people with higher authority will not share it with you unless you are willing to make tough decisions. These coupled with right values are in fact what any organisation needs to succeed.

My take on this is that both are not mutually exclusive. You can be likeable even if you have to make tough decisions. As long as you are walking the talk too.

Can you convey power through how we talk, behave, and act?

Are you interesting and memorable? Think about an influential authority figure you know. It is likely that they will be both interesting and memorable. You absolutely need to have recall value. It is a great way to start building influence.

It is also not optional to have an original personality and a sense of humour! Chances are you will be quirky, maybe a little rough on the edges. However there is enough room in the world for your way to flourish. Don’t be afraid to let your originality thrive. Wear it on your sleeves!

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wilde

Your communication skills need to be top notch if you ever want to enter the corridors of power.

Your speeches need to be polished, presentations top-notch and your e-mails brief but well written. You may not possess these skills, in which case, work with someone who does. Take a course, do something about it! It will pay handsome dividends.

Your appearance matters as well.

Some people suggest formals, a clean shaven look, and smiling etc. I think that is not correct. Be you! As long as you don’t have a distracting appearance, it is okay to be unique. A set of glasses perhaps (Satya Nadella), different sort of hairstyle. People will begin to associate it as your brand signature.

Appearances are deceiving but they matter! Photo by Konsepta Studio

Gravitas typically refers to all of the above and the way you carry yourself. For instance, usage of gestures while talking, tonality, pitch, weight, influence, and ability to speak the truth.

Crises reveal people with Gravitas and expose those who lack it

Gill Korkindale, HBR

To conclude, Power should be looked at as an instrument of good. If you shy away from it, it will not come to you. If you harness it for the good of people and organisation around you, you might command more of it!

What relationship do you have with power?


By Abhi Shah

Hi, I’m Abhi. After living many years in London, me and my family re-located back to India in the summer of 2017. I spend most of my time working with a high performing team at Barclays in Pune, India and the rest with my son Anik! I have spent half of my career in commercial product roles and half in technology. I have also spent over 9 years living outside India, and have traveled to over 27 countries. Visit the Bio section of this website to learn more about me.

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