The Truth About Power
Myth: More power leads to more success, and more satisfaction.
Truth: It’s not how much power you have but how you use it that counts.
It is natural, and even healthy, to care about ourselves, and to ask the question “What’s in it for me?” But when it comes to having or wielding power, this is not the right place to start. We seek power to the extent that we feel powerless. But actually having power, no matter how much, does little to alleviate powerless feelings. The sense of powerlessness that pervades our lives is not about power per se. It is an artifact of childhood, a survival instinct, and a response to the fact that we will not be here forever.
In this one way, we are actually all powerless. The best we can do is to come to terms with this reality and focus on making a difference for others in the time that we have. To some extent, this shift in mindset happens naturally as we age. With wisdom, life experience, and the growing awareness of our mortality, we start to focus more on future generations and what we can do to help them thrive. We achieve things and start to wonder about meaning and purpose. We start to worry less about our own success and happiness and more about the success and happiness of future generations.
The Two Sides of Power
Power has two faces, no matter who you are. You can play it up, show it off, and remind others who has the upper hand. And you can play it down, minimize it, and remind others how important they are. Most of us tend to show one of these faces first, and to rely on it a little too much. To use power well, you will want to get comfortable showing both.
The Art of Playing Power Up
Playing high is doing things to raise oneself relative to others—by name-dropping, claiming expertise, or pulling rank; or to lower others relative to oneself—by criticizing or judging someone, disagreeing with them, mocking them, or ignoring them. It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that playing high always works as intended. But characters play high, both in the theater and in life, not because they are more powerful than others and they know it, but because regardless of reality, they are not sure they are respected or powerful enough.
The Call of the Wild
Playing high is taking up space, both literally and figuratively. An actor playing high does not hide or “kind of” come into the room. She “makes an entrance,” striding in boldly, gracefully, with determination and focus, and sometimes also noisily, in high heels or heavy shoes. When playing high, an actor spreads out, leans back.
Playing high is taking up space and maximizing personal comfort. It is moving through the scene smoothly, using the whole body in ways that demonstrate complete clarity of purpose and not a hint of hesitation or self-doubt.
Pulling rank is perhaps the most obvious example of how people play power up, particularly in the workplace. Pulling rank is explicitly claiming the right to control an outcome based on one’s status or hierarchical position, as when your kids realize they can open a negotiation by asking why they have to obey your directives, and you say, “Because I’m your mom and I said so.” The business equivalent is akin to how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos allegedly expresses displeasure when his team fails to execute on a directive by asking whether he needs a letter from downstairs verifying that “I’m the CEO.” As another example, Henry Ford reportedly advised those who questioned him to comply because “my name is on the building.”
Humor is very hierarchical, because many jokes are put-downs or take-downs. Observe what happens on Twitter. Name-calling is a way of playing power up that is especially tricky to counter because attempting to do so indicates you can’t take a joke. President Trump is a specialist in this technique; he comes up with catchy (if demeaning) nicknames for all of his political opponents and delivers them like verbal swipes. Trump’s nicknames seem designed to diminish others, but note also the effect on his stature when he dishes it out but can’t take it. Following a put-down with an attempt at a take-down can undercut your clout.
Backhanded compliments like these are almost always a kind of power play. That’s because commenting on someone’s appearance—whether positively or negatively—not only is objectifying but also assumes the right to scrutinize and pass judgment. This is why it’s taboo for a subordinate to compliment a superior’s appearance, but perfectly acceptable for a boss to compliment an underling’s.
“You Are Not Worthy”
A common way that people play power up is by refusing to acknowledge another person’s presence or failing to give them undivided attention. This is also why showing up late to an appointment or checking one’s phone during a meeting or in class is offensive, but more acceptable for a higher-ranking person than a lower-ranking one. These are moves that can be used strategically to send a message that your time matters most.
When a leader dominates a conversation by interrupting, it can stifle voices and create a demoralizing and even psychologically unsafe space where others feel their opinions are not valued and they are punished for speaking. But in certain contexts, this same behavior can have the opposite effect. When a leader interrupts the most vocal members of a team or group in order to give the floor to quieter individuals, for example, the team benefits from the input and insights of those who might not have spoken up otherwise. This is yet another way playing power up can be helpful.
The Right of Refusal
Saying yes is easy; supporting others in their efforts makes them happy. Saying no is harder and is an exercise in playing power up. Exercising the right to disagree, to veto, to redirect, or to refuse to comply with another person’s wishes is the concrete manifestation of authority: the right to tell others what they can and cannot do. When wielded responsibly, the ability to say no is an essential aspect of using power well, especially in a high-power role. It is needed to keep teams focused on top priorities and to keep projects on schedule and under budget, and to prevent people from getting sidetracked or veering off course. Saying no is a problem only when a person in power shoots down suggestions, requests, or opportunities indiscriminately, for personal reasons that do not benefit the group.
When Playing Power Up Is a Strong Choice
Playing power up can seem hostile. But the thing to keep in mind is that in many group situations, playing power up is the most generous thing you can do. In all groups, we need someone to step up, provide direction, and keep things under control. Knowing that someone is prepared to keep things on track and shut down bad behavior immediately makes it possible for everyone to relax and stay focused on the task at hand.
The Art of Playing Power Down
Animal behaviorists use the terms submission and appeasement somewhat interchangeably to describe the ways animals try to indicate they do not pose a threat and are willing to back down in a contest for scarce resources. With humans, too, submission and appeasement communicate the absence of threat, the presence of vulnerability, and a willingness to put others’ interests first. Again, it is not a sign that the animal has no power; it is a sign that in that moment, the animal does not intend to use the power it has. This, in a nutshell, is what it means to play power down.
Asking for Help
Asking for help is a great way to show deference while also lifting others up. When a powerful person reaches out for help or admits an area of weakness, it can actually be a source of strength.
Howard Schultz said, “I would say one of the underlying strengths of a great leader and a great C.E.O.—not all the time but when appropriate—is to demonstrate vulnerability, because that will bring people closer to you and show people the human side of you.” Asking for help when in a position of power is a way of drawing others closer and inviting them to get in your corner.
Lines We Don’t Cross
Respecting that others have boundaries, whether physical or social, is a way of playing power down by showing awareness that others have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to be closer to you. For a person who ranks higher, allowing others the right to decide what kind of distance feels more comfortable to them is a way of elevating them and lowering yourself. It sends the message You make the rules, and I’ll follow them.
Being willing to grant someone greater control and greater rights than they are entitled to, based on rank alone, is a powerful way of playing power down. And the ability to show respect to others regardless of their rank by acknowledging that their approval matters is a great way to make hierarchical relationships work.
Going Along, Just to Get Along
Agreeing, complying, and deferring to others’ wishes are all ways of showing that we are willing to let someone else’s interests loom larger than our own. We are all much more likely to do this when dealing with people who outrank us, as we should. This is one of the strongest hierarchical norms there is, and going along with others’ wishes can be a way of showing that we know our place.
When Playing Power Down Is a Strong Choice
In a group of peers, when you are vying for status and influence, there is more than one way to the top. You can play power up and be feared, or play power down and be loved. And either way, if your approach adds value—because you know some things and are willing to take risks to share them—you can end up in a powerful position.
Many have argued, in fact, that playing power down is a better approach to managing a team overall. Whenever the person in charge needs more information, needs buy-in for effective implementation, and is working with an experienced team, the benefits of playing power down outweigh the costs. An authoritative, dominant approach to using power, which relies on fear, is associated with better performance only when the manager knows best and can count on the full commitment of those who are tasked with execution. In addition, an autocratic approach to managing is associated with higher productivity when the boss is actually watching, but a more deferential, democratic approach to management is associated with higher productivity, creativity, learning, and commitment when the boss is not present.
Playing Up vs Playing Down
And although people tend to flock to authoritative political leaders in times of crisis, at all other times, participative leaders are actually preferred. A recent study by linguists Ari Decter-Frain and Jeremy A. Frimer, for example, found that public approval of Congress was highest when politicians “used tentative language, expressed both positive emotion and anxiety, and used human words.” The researchers concluded that in this context, warmth was more important than competence when trying to predict influence. Consistent with these observations, Yale University’s Victor Vroom finds that although on average most managers report relying more on authoritativeness than the alternative, more participativeness is better across contexts. Studies also find that even managers who think they are participative are not playing their power down as effectively as they could be. Subordinates see their bosses as more authoritative than bosses see themselves.
In short, although most managers worry about how to play their power up more effectively, they may benefit more from mastering the art of playing power down. It’s not rocket science, but when we are worried about how much power we have, it can be hard to let go.