Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 28, 2021
by Neil Senturia
In scientific terms, it is the rate at which energy is transferred or converted. Power = Work divided by Time, and it is often measured in watts.
But in organizational behavior it is about “the ability to get things done against opposition,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford professor and author of “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.”
For example, Pfeffer says that we give away power by tilting our heads. We give away power by looking down when we hunch over. By contrast, you gain power when you stand up to your full height (I will be using a ladder as an assist on that one) — when you take an expansive posture, when you take up more space. “And you certainly have power to the extent that you use forceful gestures.” He advocates big and balanced.
Well, I know he is famous and Stanford and for sure, on a nonverbal level, that advice might be interesting and even somewhat effective, but I want to take another side. I want to argue that power comes from compelling, truthful leadership, not just from being loud.
I am thinking about people like Mike Bloomberg (short and not a screamer) and Obama and even Bezos, Zuckerberg and Pichai (CEO of Google). Their power seems to come from their ideas and vision, rather than simply taking up the most space in the room.
Pfeffer says one way to show power is to interrupt people when they are speaking, and by extension, not to allow yourself to be interrupted. This seems adverse to me. On a personal note, when I am talking and someone interrupts, I stop immediately and let them speak. On the other hand, I am guilty of sometimes interrupting others, and I do not think it is a good quality.
I offer Pfeffer’s thinking because I don’t agree with it, and this column needs to present multiple points of view. For example, his book says that “displaying anger gets more results than begging or pleading or throwing yourself on the mercy of whoever.” Sure, if the anger is justified.
Again, my experience is that I always try to start with polite and charming, particularly at airport check-in or any public interaction with someone I want something from and don’t really have a righteous argument.
In the conference room, I see that the leaders who speak more softly and less frequently seem to have more real power than bombast and waving your arms.
Where Pfeffer and I agree is on smiling. “Energy and passion are contagious,” he says. And he argues for displaying confidence and conviction. But again, I am a bit more nuanced. I am more inclined to speak optimistically, but with caution, particularly with investors.
I leave you with Sir John Dalberg-Action, who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I would add to that, be careful what you wish for in terms of power, you may get it, and then the greater challenge will be how to wield it for good in your company.
Now, please allow me to pick your summer reading book, “Noise,” by Dan Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein. This should be required reading for every CEO. It is a deep, rigorous analysis of how we get fooled by “noise” in our decision-making, as well as how decisions are made affecting you (think judges, doctors, lawyers, teachers, insurance agents, etc.).
My friend was told he had prostate cancer, he schedules surgery at UCLA, but before he flies out here, he gets one last “second opinion.” No cancer, the first doc misread the data.
People seek consistency in many areas, for example, college admissions, fingerprint analysis, whether to consummate a merger. The infamous trust your gut is nonsense in contrast to data analysis. The trio argue for standards that avoid bias or random judgments. They want us to “eradicate the noise that leads to random, unfair decisions” and by so doing, hopefully, we can “regain trust in one another.”
In the end, I believe power comes from good decision-making and that comes from decreasing “noise” and favoring “decomposing” assessments, while still making room for personal judgment. The goal is to “make life’s lottery a lot more coherent.” “Noise” is a great book.
Rule No. 672
Listen to the noise.