Power Re-Defined

When talking about power, many quote Machiavelli, “It is much safer to be feared than loved”. Really? Does muscle and intimidation wield more power than respect and persuasion? In the article, “Power Paradox“, Dacher Keltner explains three commonly accepted myths about power.

  1. Myth number one: Power equals cash, votes, and muscle: The term power evokes images of force and coercion. But there are many exceptions to this definition: My stay-at-home petite Asian mother controlling everything in the home, or a penniless toddler crying for candle in the checkout line of a grocery store. New psychological research has redefined power, and this definition makes clear just how prevalent and integral power is in all of our lives. In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism. This definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others.
  2. Myth number two: Machiavellians win in the game of power: One of the central questions concerning power is who gets it. Researchers have confronted this question for years, and their results offer a sharp rebuke to the Machiavellian view of power. It is not the manipulative, strategic Machiavellian who rises in power. Instead, social science reveals that one’s ability to get or maintain power, even in small group situations, depends on one’s ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence—reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions—prevails over social Darwinism.
  3. Myth number three: Power is strategically acquired, not given: A major reason why Machiavellians fail is that they fall victim to a third myth about power. They mistakenly believe that power is acquired strategically in deceptive gamesmanship and by pitting others against one another. Here Machiavelli failed to appreciate an important fact in the evolution of human hierarchies: that with increasing social intelligence, subordinates can form powerful alliances and constrain the actions of those in power. Power increasingly has come to rest on the actions and judgments of other group members. A person’s power is only as strong as the status given to that person by others.

In today’s corporate world, there are those who still view power more from an Machiavellian mindset, and others from these new social science perspectives. If you want to be an empowered leader (manager), I would recommend reading the whole article.