Author Talks: Rules of power from Jeffrey Pfeffer to help you get your way

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Simon London chats with Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer about his new book, 7 Rules of Power: Surprising—but True—Advice on How to Get Things Done and Advance Your Career (BenBella Books, June 2022). Unfortunately, Pfeffer says, the world is not just or fair. But instead of opting out of the career game “before you’ve even started playing,” he offers new ways to change the rules of engagement for anyone looking to grow their influence. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What is power, and what are its main sources?

I would define power as the ability to get things done your way in contested situations. Different people and different functions will have different perspectives, different information, and different points of view. Almost every decision is going to be somewhat contested, so power is the ability to get your way in contested situations.

There are a number of sources of power. One obvious—or maybe not-so-obvious—source of power is control over resources. Do you have budget control? Do you control real-estate assets? Do you control a physical plant? Resources are very important.

Another source of power is social relationships: the networks that you have built and that you have. Management leadership is often defined as getting things done through other people. One source of power, therefore, is how many people you know. How many people are in your sphere of influence, so to speak?

A third very important source of power that I think people sometimes underestimate is how you show up. Are you able to act and speak with power? Do you show up in a powerful fashion? Many writers write about what they call “executive presence.” I think how you show up and how you talk is a very important source of power.

Another important source of power, of course, is your brand. Just as Coca-Cola, Tesla, and other companies have brands, individuals have brands. It’s about whether or not you’ve built a reputation. If you’re perceived as a powerful, effective, efficacious leader, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—good people want to work with you, invest with you, and buy from your company. That becomes an important source of power as well.

If you’re perceived as a powerful, effective, efficacious leader, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How can power be used for good?

Power is a tool. It can be used for good. It can be used for evil. Don’t confuse the fact that it is sometimes used for evil with power actually being evil.

The people who most need to understand power and build their power skills are people who come from backgrounds or have characteristics that would normally put them at a disadvantage.

There is still, unfortunately, discrimination against women. There’s discrimination against people of color. People from lower socioeconomic classes usually start at some disadvantage, and those are the people who most need the power skills because they’re not starting from the 50-yard line, if we’re using a football metaphor. They have to overcome the most obstacles to achieve career success.

Melvin Lerner, the social psychologist, years ago wrote about the just-world effect, or the just-world hypothesis, where people want to believe that the world is just and fair, which gives them a sense of control. Unfortunately, the world is not just and fair, and we know that.

We know that educational credentials help predict salary. We know that gender and race help predict salary, even though they shouldn’t. We know that years of service, or seniority, helps predict salary, and there’s some evidence to suggest that years of service is one of the more important predictors of salary.

Gender, race, years of service, and educational credentials all have nothing to do with performance. Yes, job performance matters, but there are other things that matter as well, so you need to understand the game. Don’t opt out of the game before you’ve even started playing—don’t place yourself at a disadvantage.

What is the problem with authenticity?

No one is hired to win a popularity contest—you’re hired to get things done. You’re hired to make things happen, so when you show up to lead a group of people, those people want many things from you. What they don’t necessarily want from you is your authentic self.

What they need from you is inspiration. They need energy, even if you’re not feeling energetic that day. They need guidance. They need information. They need you to behave like a leader. What I tell people is, if you want to be authentic, you can be as authentic as you need or want to be, but you need to be authentic to what the people around you need from you. You don’t need to be authentic to how you’re feeling.

I have a friend and colleague at Stanford, Debra Grunfeld, who teaches a class called Acting with Power. The best part of that class is the first day when she tries to explain to people that you are always playing a role—maybe as a significant other, as a parent, as a child, as a leader, or as a subordinate.

Nobody would expect you to behave toward your subordinates as you behave toward your children, or behave toward your boss as you behave toward your significant other. All of these roles call for different behaviors, quite sensibly, and people go from role to role quite naturally. I think what causes difficulty is when people try to be the child at work—that’s not a good thing—or when they try to be the parent in places where it’s inappropriate.

I don’t think you need to bring your whole self to work. I think you need to bring the parts of yourself to work that will help you get the job done.

I don’t think you need to bring your whole self to work. I think you need to bring the parts of yourself to work that will help you get the job done.

What advice do you have for rule breaking?

Breaking rules has many advantages. The first advantage of breaking the rules is that it catches people by surprise. We’re trained from the time we’re little to conform. It’s what schools mostly teach you to do, so when you break the rules, it catches people by surprise.

How does David beat Goliath? By breaking the rules. Goliath shows up with armor and swords. David figures that if he puts on all this armor, he won’t be able to move, let alone win the battle, so he fights by using a slingshot.

There are books on asymmetric warfare that say, when the weak play by the strong’s rules they lose, but when they play by and make up rules that favor their particular capacities and capabilities, they win.

If you want to disrupt an industry, you disrupt the industry by basically making your own rules. If we talk about social change, the late Congressman John Lewis talked about making good trouble. If you’re going to accomplish social change, if you’re going to accomplish profound change of any kind in any organization, you’re going to need to break the rules.

The rules are made by those already in power. If you’re already in power, follow the rules. If you’re not, make your own.

The rules are made by those already in power. If you’re already in power, follow the rules. If you’re not, make your own.

How can social relationships be a source of power?

People overemphasize objective job performance and spend too little time cultivating the social relationships that will both help them do their job better and help other people see that they’ve done their job better. I think people—most people, but not all people—underinvest in the time they spend on networking. That’s number one.

Number two: as research by some of my various colleagues has demonstrated, networking often makes people feel dirty and like they are winning by using underhanded or inappropriate tactics. That’s something that people often don’t want to do, so I think they underinvest in networking because they feel dirty about it. They don’t see it as the value-adding activity that it is.

Venture capital connects technology developers with people with money. Investment banking connects buyers of businesses and securities with sellers of securities and businesses. Real-estate brokers connect buyers of houses with sellers of houses. I think we undervalue the extent to which bringing groups, people, or interests together is, in itself, a valuable activity.

What is the seventh and final rule of power?

The extent to which you effectively use your power will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning you will get stuff done, more people will flock to you, and then you will get more resources and more talent. This is sometimes called the flywheel effect.

When you use your power to make things happen, to improve the performance of your organization, and to change the culture in ways that benefit the organization and its performance, then you will have more power as a consequence. Power is not something like a bottle of water that gets used up the more you drink it. It’s something that gets created the more effectively you use it.

Power is not something like a bottle of water that gets used up the more you drink it. It’s something that gets created the more effectively you use it.

I think many people are inhibited from doing everything that we have talked about by the idea that somehow, it’s going to come back to haunt them—that Icarus flies too close to the sun and has to be brought down, that people are going to remember all the things you did to get to where you are, and that they will use those memories or resentments to try to take you down.

I think the reason why rule seven—which is basically that once you have power, money, and success, people will forget and forgive how you got there—is such an important rule is that it frees you to do everything else. This rule says that at the end, if you are successful, success excuses almost everything. Therefore, don’t worry so much about what you’re doing, just worry about how effective you are and whether or not you’re actually accomplishing what you set out to accomplish.

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