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Learning Corner with Jeffrey Pfeffer: Get Out of Your Own Way on Your Path to Power

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

I’ve taught at Stanford Business School since 1979. In that time, I’ve often reflected on the school’s motto: Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world. And whenever I think about how to affect these types of meaningful changes, I always come back to one thing: Power. So, I teach my students about power and how to achieve it.

I’ve taught about power for more than four decades for two primary reasons. The first is that power is a fundamental dimension of organizational and social life. And the second is that, as Rosabeth Kanter described years ago, power is a topic that makes people uncomfortable—one that they sometimes shy away from. I believe it is essential that people understand one of the most important of social forces, regardless of any momentary discomfort. Learning, after all, often involves challenging assumptions and taking people out of their comfort zones.

My primary lesson is this: Power shouldn’t make us uncomfortable. It’s foundational to success at work—for CEOs, managers and new hires, alike. In fact, Florida State professor Gerald Ferris and his colleagues have conducted extensive studies of political skill and its effects. Possessing political skill—the ability to develop and wield power effectively—among other things positively predicted job performance, employee support, and dimensions of career success including total compensation, promotions and career and life satisfaction.

Building off of this teaching about power to people in many countries, my most fundamental insight is this: the people themselves are often their own biggest barrier to achieving the power and the positions that they seek. I believe power is so important to the success of people at work that I’m writing a book about it: The 7 Rules of Power. The first rule? Get out of your own way.

Here are four things you need to do to free yourself and become the more powerful person living inside you:

1. Pay Attention to How You Define Yourself

About a year ago, a former student came to my office for some advice. In the first ten minutes of our conversation, she repeatedly described herself (accurately) as the youngest person in the group involved in a power struggle, with the least seniority in the company. I told her to try on other (also accurate) adjectives: the most analytically skilled, the only one with a degree from a prestigious MBA program, or the person who had run the project with the greatest economic impact.

Sitting up a little straighter, she admitted those were all true. So, I said, there are five adjectives, you choose which you want to embrace as your self-description. She continued to embrace a more powerful description of herself moving forward. And this more confident, powerful-appearing persona influenced how others saw her—which, in turn, accelerated her career.

People who believe modesty is a virtue often self-deprecate, fail to promote their accomplishments and act in ways that give away their power. Don’t be one of those people. If you do not think you are up to the task or qualified, others will pick it up. Don’t self-handicap yourself by being unwilling to lean into your many skills.

2. Don’t Accept Other-Imposed Constraints

Dr. Laura Esserman, breast cancer surgeon, medical innovator and described by many as a force of nature, was named toTime magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2016. I have known Dr. Esserman for decades and currently serve on the board of her nonprofit. Her most successful quality (among the many that have made her powerful) is her absolute unwillingness to conform to gender-norm expectations—or to let others impose constraints on who she is and what she can (and will) do.

In a recent email she wrote: "I do not choose to be relegated to a lower status role. I have no problem challenging people or making them rethink their assumptions. There are many examples—you are a woman or you are a surgeon. I don’t feel like I have to "stay in my lane." The dean who hired me to UCSF said to me, ’Laura, do you not see the boundaries between disciplines?’ I replied, ’No, why should I?’"

Esserman is currently running an adaptive drug design study for COVID-19 (although she is a breast cancer surgeon) and has been actively involved in medical public policy. If you have something you think you can contribute to a decision or a product, refuse to let others define you out of the picture.

3. Stop Worrying About Being Liked

People worry too much about being liked. Gary Loveman, a former Harvard Business School professor who was COO of Harrah’s Entertainment and then held a very senior role at Aetna before starting his own health-care start-up, is famous for telling my class, "If you want to be liked, get a dog. A dog will love you unconditionally."

He went on to note that in executive leadership roles, you are not hired to win a popularity contest. Your responsibility is to get things done and make the enterprise successful. He commented that when the 2008 financial crisis hit, and about half the casino employment in Atlantic City disappeared, he had to green light over 10,000 layoffs. He tried to explain to the workforce what and why this was happening—and to do it as graciously and generously as he could.

He continued, "Do you think those people like me? Do you think their families like me? I assure you they do not. Was this the right decision to try to save the remaining 60,000 plus jobs? That is a discussion for another day. But if you need to be liked as you make executive decisions, you are going to be in for a rough ride."

In a study with Darden School faculty member Peter Belmi, we showed that when people’s outcomes—their rewards, their success—depended on the overall success of the group, they were willing to prioritize competence over sociability (niceness) in choosing people to work with. Fundamentally, people love to be part of a winning effort. Your first responsibility as a leader is to produce success, not to win a popularity contest.

4. Don’t Let Unfairness Become an Excuse

Inbal Demri, an Israeli-born executive coach who works with both my online and on-campus classes, argues that there are at least two ways to respond to the unjustness—gender- and race-based discrimination, for instance—that remains all too pervasive. One response is to use being unfairly treated as an excuse. Demri argues instead to reframe things in ways that tell you what to do. If being an "only" makes you stand out, use that uniqueness to your advantage.

It may be comfortable to self-handicap and to make excuses—but it diminishes the likelihood of achieving power. Power is leverage—including leverage to change things for the better. Power accelerates careers, permits the accomplishment of great, bold things and increases career and life satisfaction.

It’s crucial to understand that one of the biggest barriers to building and using power is our own feelings—and our reluctance to build and use influence. Remember, the first rule of power is to get out of your own way. The most powerful people I know describe themselves as fearless, shameless, bold, and brave. They have gotten out of their own way by losing the scripts that hold them back, and you can, too. It’s time to embrace your power.

For more from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s column, the Learning Corner, click here.

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