The myths of power - Canadian Government Executive
Best Practice
May 7, 2012

The myths of power

Power

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Harper Business, 273 pages, $32.99

 

Government revolves around power. Political parties seek power. They implement their ideas with the help of government executives, who are sensitive not just to the power of their political masters but the power held at various levels of the civil service. If you lack an antenna attuned to power, you probably won’t get too far in government.

At the same time, not many conventional leadership books tell people in government – or outside government – about power. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a noted Stanford University professor, therefore should be welcomed with his latest book, a primer on power. It’s based on a leadership course he teaches, with examples from both the private and public sector.

He opens by arguing that to be effective in figuring out your path to power and to actually use his advice you must first transcend three obstacles that block many people from seeking power. The first is the notion that you don’t have to seek power because the world is a just place, and your talent will take you to the top if you just focus on doing your job exceptionally well. That may well be true, but if you are too accepting that fate will take care of you he argues it may prevent you from learning from all situations and all people. Second, it will anesthetize you to the need to be proactive in building a power base, and the landmines that might blow up your dreams.

The second obstacle is the leadership literature, often written by successful leaders who gloss over the role power plays in their lives. They wax eloquently instead on following your inner compass, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying way. He says those are all “prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved. There is no doubt that the world would be a much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, and consistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pushing their own aims. But that world doesn’t exist.” Those in power get to write history, and it may not be entirely truthful.

The third obstacle he cites is you. “People are often their own worst enemy,” he declares. “That’s in part because people like to feel good about themselves and maintain a positive self-image. And, ironically, one of the best ways for people to preserve their self-esteem is to either pre-emptively surrender, or do other things that put obstacles in their own way.”

Since failing would put our self-esteem at risk, we intentionally erect barriers so that failing won’t seem to reflect our innate abilities. “Having taught material on power for decades, I have come to believe that the biggest single effect I can have is to get people to try to become powerful. That’s because people are afraid of setbacks and the implications for their self-image, so often they don’t do all they can to increase their power,” he declares.

He also challenges the myth that performance will carry you to success – and power. He looks at people whose performance was superb but were bounced from their job because they weren’t sensitive to the power dynamic, and people denied promotions because their boss needed them to stay where they were. Beyond those anecdotal stories, he notes that research studies show a weak link between performance and job outcomes. “So great job performance by itself is insufficient and may not even be necessary for getting and holding positions of power. You need to be noticed, influence the dimensions used to measure your accomplishments, and mostly make sure you are effective at managing those in power – which requires the ego to enhance the ego of those above you,” he writes.

Your first responsibility is to ensure those at the highest levels of your organization know what you are accomplishing. After all, they have to choose you for a senior role. If you blend into the woodwork, you won’t stand a chance. So you need to be visible. Become familiar to them, since research shows familiarity produces preference. “Simply put, in many cases, being memorable equals getting picked,” he points out.

Since nobody can perform equally well on all the dimensions of their work, you want to constantly emphasize those aspects at which you excel. He points to Tina Brown, the editor who presided over great growth in advertising revenues and circulation at the helm of The New Yorker magazine and Vanity Fair. Neither made a profit, but that didn’t hurt her; she managed to attain lots of publicity for the boost to revenues and circulation – and in particular her skill for timely stories that illuminated the culture of the day. “There are limits to what you can do to affect the criteria used to judge your work. But you can highlight those dimensions of job performance that favour you – and work against your competition,” he advises.

One of those dimensions will be whether you make those in power feel better about themselves. Everyone, including your boss, is insecure in some way. They need to seek out positive information and avoid negative feedback. So help them.

“Worry about the relationship you have with your boss at least as much as you worry about your job performance. If your boss makes a mistake, see if someone else other than you will point it out. And if you do highlight some error or problem, do so in a way that does not in any way implicate the individual’s own self-concept or competence – for instance, by blaming the error on others or on the situation. The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or have a difficult relationship with those in power,” he says.

Flattery works. He says it induces reciprocity. If you compliment someone, that person owes you something in return, just as if you had bought them a dinner or gave them a gift. Jack Valenti, the legendary head of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years, was notorious for buttering up people. Working as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s, he was intensely loyal and constantly agreeing with his boss. In a speech, he said, “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president.” He flattered the studio heads he worked for as head of the Association. And when he received a thank you note after speaking at Pfeffer’s class, he sent back a handwritten message complimenting the professor for his thank you.

From the research literature and his own analysis of political and business biographies, Pfeffer came up with seven personal qualities that help to build power: ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy with others, and capacity to tolerate conflict. You may have noted that intelligence isn’t on the list. Just as high performance isn’t vital for attaining power, neither is intelligence.

Research suggests intelligence seldom accounts for more than 20 percent of the variation in work performance between people, and as we’ve noted the relationship between performance and attaining power is weak. People who are exceptionally smart may lack empathy and collaboration skills. They also might get carried away by their own brainpower so that they make dumb decisions. As examples, he simply points to titles of books on fiascos, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest on the Vietnam war and Bethany McLean’s and Peter Elkind’s The Smartest Guys in the Room on the demise of Enron.

That sets the foundation for readers. He then moves on, with a blend of research and practical advice, to show the various steps in attaining power and the dangers that might lie ahead. Even where you start – what job or department – can be crucial, and he explains how to increase your odds simply through that choice, assuming y

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Best Practice
 
With the launch of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and US Congressional interest in Trump’s...
 
Why is strategic planning so dreaded? How often do we actually...
 
Most articles you’ll read within the pages of Canadian Government Executive...
 
A communications revolution has taken place but you would not know...
 
Headlines about the world of work are often dominated by the...
 
Earlier this year the Canadian government took a crucial step by...
 
The use of digital services in the day-to-day lives of most...
 
Since launching in 2014, Sweden’s radically ‘feminist’ foreign policy has gained international notoriety. While...
 
The International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index project, a collaboration between...
 
Today, the challenges facing governments are increasingly shifting away from traditional,...
 
Three years before his death in 2011, Jack Layton released a...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media, (CGE) publisher of Canadian Government Executive magazine...
 
Management in the Government of Canada is continuously searching for new...
 
With businesses and government agencies increasingly operating in a highly information-based...
 
Blockchain. There’s probably no other technology trend in recent years that...
 
Over the last two years, an ever-growing number of organizations around...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media (CGE) is pleased to announce its first batch...
 
In today’s workplace, individuals increasingly face dynamic and difficult challenges that...
 
Canadian Government Executive Media (CGE) is pleased to welcome Microsoft as its Platinum Sponsor for...
 
In a rather unusual, quiet manner this past summer, a new...
 
Canadian government agencies and departments are modernizing the way they do...
 
The health care system in Canada, known as Medicare, is publicly...
 
We are happy to share with you the May/June issue of...
 
Facebook Pages can be an essential tool for businesses and charities,...
 
In this special episode of CGE Radio, your host John Jones...
 
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with its 28 independent member countries...
 
Cost overruns have become institutionalized in the federal government, according to...
 
Last year, procurement Minister Jody Foote was prompted by the swirling...
 
The rapid advances in digital technology, demographic and societal shift even...
 
Results Washington is Washington state government’s data-driven performance management and continuous...
 
Rules and accountability are helpful in developing and standardizing processes but...
 
Ontario’s provincial government needs to act fast in building a coordinated...
 
It’s a common notion that young workers born in the mid-1990s...
 
In order to find out which strategies and priorities CFOs are...
 
A small but rapidly growing number of businesses have started hiring...
 
CFOs around the world are changing – but an EY survey...
 
There’s a fine line between confidence and naivety – a line...
 
Around the world, more and more workers are seeking employment. At...
 
As populations grow and age, the demand for services increases. As...
 
By Nicole Verkindt Despite growing up in a small town in...
 
The agency responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon and several other buildings...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
By Jason Zhang  The best way to cost effectively manage the retention...
 
He is often referred to as the federal government’s first “chief...
 
Are you absolutely clear what the government wants to achieve? Are...
 
Copyright owners have struggled to protect their intellectual property since the...
 
Here’s some bad news for organizations contemplating projects that have something...
 
Nearly half of Canadian organizations are falling behind on implementation of...
 
The idea of converged infrastructure and converged systems in the datacentre...
 
Hackers are zeroing in on users of SSL/TLS encryption and no...
 
There is no shortage of examples of businesses that effectively used...
 
Microsoft, on Tuesday, ended support for older versions of Internet Explorer...
 
Written by Tim Wacker Almost a quarter century ago, when most...
 
Written By Chris Brown To deliver results that senior executives value,...
 
Written By Jason McNaught Contrary to what you may have heard,...
 
Written by  Benjamin Selinger and Gabriel Flores A real challenge for...
 
Written by  Patrice Dutil It’s hard to believe we are still...
 
Written by  Patrice Dutil Craig Dowden, President and Founder of Craig...
 
Written by  Brady G. Wilson You may not realize it, but...
 
Written by  Roxanne Descôteaux When I first became a manager over...
 
The good news is that the Government of Canada recognizes the...
 
You sometimes wonder why government can’t be better at just getting...
 
Hill+Knowlton Canada announced last week that it has received the prestigious...
 
I’ve been giving 110 percent for as long as I can...
 
The National Voluntary Standard for psychological health and safety in the...
 
The government of Alberta has banded together with British Columbia and...
 
When we put out the call to cities across Canada for...
 
BC Hydro was experiencing ongoing challenges with IT assets decommissioned as...
 
City councils are important. They not only represent citizens at the...
 
Business continuity management has evolved into a specialized discipline, but you...
 
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health is leading a new approach to strategic...
 
Whether you have read John Kotter’s classic Leading Change or not,...
 
Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance. But...
 
Across the country, public sector leaders are challenged with the daunting...
 
When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, it was government that...
 
Ego can do us in. It can lead to arrogance, blindness,...
 
and the more layers between a given employee and the relevant...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 Management speaks of change in positive...
 
Innovation, leadership and a commitment to building a knowledge advantage are...
 
One of the most paradoxical Biblical parables, found the Gospel of...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.1 January 2008 “We’ve entered into an era in...
 
L’une des paraboles bibliques les plus paradoxales rapportées par Luc est...
 
Chris Baker is Deputy Minister, Policy and Priorities, and Deputy Minister,...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 Often overworked and understaffed, the procurement...
 
Federal, provincial and municipal governments provide billions of dollars in grants...
 
During the American presidential election campaign of 1976, Jimmy Carter, then...
 
The Ontario Public Service celebrated ten years of hosting Showcase Ontario,...
 
Tell the truth. Deep down, do you sometimes – or often...
 
What if our general approach to brainstorming was all wrong? That...
 
Nearly two decades after I read Lincoln On Leadership, the messages...
 
True leaders are proactive. They get things done. They accomplish that...
 
Management and leadership are complicated. So it would be lovely if...
 
Government revolves around power. Political parties seek power. They implement their...
 
Managers generally walk around with a what’s-going-wrong mentality. They are fixated...
 
Government runs on expertise. Government executives seek the best knowledge and...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some...
 
When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty set as a prime goal of...
 
By now it’s commonplace knowledge that emotional intelligence is vital to...
 
Good leaders can make bad decisions. President Kennedy blundered over the...
 
The TRIC model of leadership is enshrined in the Ontario Public...
 
A respectful workplace is a critical ingredient of successful public service...
 
For the third year in a row, the Ontario Public Service...
 
Justice on Target (JOT) takes a unique and bold approach to...
 
Perched on top a 60 meter column in a bustling square...
 
For the second year in a row, the Ontario Public Service...
 
OTTAWA – Management consultants at Accenture, a respected longtime observer of...
 
La plupart des leaders reconnaissent d’emblée que leur efficacité dépend de...
 
Most leaders will readily agree that earning and keeping the trust...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
With the launch of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and US Congressional interest in Trump’s...