Payal Sharma, PhD, assistant professor of business at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, visits Course Hero to present a master class on power.
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Payal Sharma: I am very excited to be here with all of you talking about power, which is probably my favorite topic to discuss. The way that I’ve organized today’s talk is as follows: I’m going to share a little bit about my background, then the talk is going to be divided into two sections.
The first question is: What is power? The second question is: From where does power come?
As part of this second portion, we’re also going to do a mini case discussion on Lyndon Baines Johnson, who I think is one of the more fascinating figures when it comes to talking about power plays.
At the end, we’ll have a debrief and we’ll see what kind of takeaways you come up with as you return to your day-to-day life. So let’s get started.
In terms of my background, I am fairly new to the University as well as the Vegas area. I moved there about a year ago. Prior to that, as you heard in my introduction, I was in Philadelphia and also in New Jersey, teaching at Wharton as well at Rutgers. Most of my teaching to date has been on leadership. My PhD was from the University of Maryland, College Park, in organizational behavior.
For those that don’t know the discipline, OB is really the marriage of psychology and management together. We’re going to hear a lot about this in today’s workshop.
Now, in addition to my teaching, my research, as you’ve heard, focuses mostly on topics including power and control in organizations. For the last two years, I’ve been embedded in the hip-hop and rap music industry. I grew up as a child of ’90s R&B and hip-hop and rap music—Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, M.O.G. Deep—what my students call old school music.
I’m also interested in the stress of leadership—so how can we help leaders and organizations become more effective and more comfortable at sharing power with their employees.
I think you can tell a lot about a person from TV shows that they watch, so here are some fun facts about the TV shows that I am a fan of. I started watching Game of Thrones about a month ago.
Audience member: Wow.
Sharma: Yep. I invited a colleague of mine over, her and her husband will come over for Game of Thrones watch parties. We’re almost at the end of Season One and we’re already quite captured by the story and the power dynamics. Scandal, Queen of the South, and How to Get Away with Murder are some of the other shows that I like to watch.
Now, with this as the premise, I also want to tell that you [that] when I present, you’ll quickly pick up on the fact that I tend to teach in a highly interactive manner. I want to know what you think. I want to know if you agree with me, if you agree with each other. I tend to think some of the richest learning in conversations comes when there is respectful disagreement, so I hope you’re ready for a wild ride. Let’s get started.
What is power? This is an important question, I think, whenever we look at the political climate of society. The entertainment industry, with movements like Me Too and Time’s Up, and certainly in segments such as corporate America. Now, what I would like for you to do to get started is to find a partner. I want you to find someone that you might not know very well. I know it’s a small company, but I’m hoping you’re going to get to know each other.
The warm-up will consist of two questions: a get-to-know-you question and a question about power. Your first question is: Which season best reflects your personality, and why? Your choices are fall, winter, spring, and summer. After you’ve answered this question with your partner, you’re then going to answer this power-based question: When was the last time you felt powerful?
Now what I like to tell people is, when you’re answering a question like this, I want you to really describe the situation vividly, to the point where your partner can feel it, and could even be there. Of course, I’d like for you to choose an experience that you’re comfortable sharing with your partner. This can come from the professional domain; it can also come from the personal domain. You’re the driver when it comes to answering the question.
I’ll give you a couple of minutes to get situated, and then we’ll come back and debrief. [Audience murmurs.]
All right. Let’s come back together as a group. [Audience murmurs.]
If you didn’t finish, that’s all right. We’re going to do another round as well. I’m very interested, based on the chatter—some of what you’ve talked about. Now what I would like to know is not the details or the specifics of the story, but I want to know some descriptors of what powerful felt like. What did it mean to you in the situation you described? Would someone be willing to volunteer and get us started? … Yes.
Audience member 1: Valued.
Sharma: Valued. Other words, love it. In the back.
Audience member 2: Attention.
Audience member 3: Strong.
Audience member 4: Impactful.
Sharma: Oh, impactful.
Audience member 5: Responsible.
Audience member 6: Control.
Sharma: Oh, control. That is my favorite word right now. Others?
Audience member 7: Needed.
Audience member 8: Accomplished.
Audience member 9: Validated.
Audience member 10: Empowered.
Sharma: Validated, impact, empowered. [Audience murmurs.] Any others?
Audience member 11: Informed.
Audience member 12: Intoxicated.
Sharma: Informed. Ah. [Audience murmurs.] Who said that? You have just primed me for one of my jokes. So, I live outside of Las Vegas and I like to say that power is like alcohol—it makes you more of who you are.
Now that you’ve gotten some wheels in your head thinking about power, I’m going to have you do another exercise. You’re going to rotate to find a new partner, and these are the questions you’re going to answer.
If you received $1 million that you could only use to travel or take a trip, where would you go and why?
Your power-based question is, when was the last time you felt powerless? Similar to the first round, I want you to tell your story vividly. You can choose what domain this story comes from, and I want you to help your partner really understand what that felt like.
Again, this will be a new partner. I’ll see you back in a few minutes.
Sharma: All right, let’s come back as a group.
Sharma: I’m curious in this round: What are some of the descriptors that have come to mind as your conversations have surfaced? What are some words that you would describe to really capture the experience of being powerless? Volunteers.
Audience member 13: Weak.
Audience member 14: Pain.
Audience member 15: Isolated.
Audience member 16: Hopeless.
Audience member 17: Frustrated.
Audience member 18: Stuck.
Sharma: Oh, that’s a powerful word, stuck.
Audience member 19: Shut down.
Sharma: Shut down. So this is where the talk ends. I’m just kidding. Shut down.
Audience member 20: Pressure.
Audience member 21: Sad.
Audience member 22: Unheard.
Sharma: Oh, unheard.
Audience member 23: Futile.
Audience member 24: Irrelevant.
Audience member 25: Lost.
Audience member 26: Trapped.
Sharma: Trapped. Any others?
Audience member 27: Alone.
Sharma: Oh, alone. Now you can see immediately the contrast between the experience of powerful and powerless. What I like to tell people is that some of my research looks at how people who are powerless can actually gain sources of power and use power-gaining strategies. For my hip-hop project in particular, our project has focused on how video models, women who are the bottom of the power food chain in the industry, can use strategies for gaining power to protect themselves from being mistreated.
Now back in January, my project coauthor, Kristie Rogers from Marquette University, sent me this quote from Brené Brown, who some of you may know on Instagram, and I thought this was quite impactful in capturing the experience of powerlessness, as the descriptors you’ve put on the board also indicate. According to Brené, “Power is the ability to achieve purpose,” and she’s citing Martin Luther King, Jr. “Power is the ability to effect change. It sounds simple,” she says, “but powerlessness, the inability to achieve purpose or make a change, is one the most devastating experiences in our lives. It’s physical and emotional trauma.” Pretty powerful words.
Sharma: Now, I like to give people a common understanding of what the language of power is really about. When it comes to management research, as well as in the psychology domain, there are a few words that characterize power that I hope will set the premise for today’s workshop. The buzz words are as follows: influence.
A second buzz word is dependence. When it comes to power and work settings, the extent to which others depend on you is a reflection of how much power you actually have.
The example I like to give is [that] your boss is actually someone that you’re dependent on for resources, for example. Anything from advancement, promotions, bonuses, assignment of duties—this is all reflective of power dynamics. And usually we see in leadership [that] there is a power asymmetry. A leader has more power than the person that they’re overseeing.
In formal terms, we will often say that leaders have what’s called positional power. This is only one type of power, however, that’s important in organizational life.
The third word which was mentioned is the notion of control. What I like to teach my students is that the extent to which you are powerful is the extent to which you have control over resources—but those resources should be valued by other power players in your setting.
You’re going to hear me cite Jeffrey Pfeffer quite a bit. He’s a Stanford Business School professor whose thinking has heavily influenced the way that I teach. One of the recommendations Professor Pfeffer says to people is, when you’re thinking about creating dependence or trying to have influence, you should go where the market is not saturated.
Now, as a business school professor, I’ve lived this, because I think I’m the only business school professor who studies hip-hop and can rap better than Tupac—just kidding.
This is a point, though, that I hope you will take home—that the notion that you can either create valued resources or direct those resources will give you power in your work setting.
Now, as a researcher I wanted to give you a resource, so all of you have a handout (thank you again for the copies) about how power is defined. You’re going to see these three buzz words permeate the definitions. This handout comes from a review of the power research that was written in 2015. It was written by Rachel Sturm, who was a faculty member at Wright State University.
On the flip side, you’re also going to see a summation of what Rachel and her colleague accumulated in terms of what we know of how power affects your cognition, your affect, as well as a range of other behaviors and feelings.
Knowing this is the definition of power, I also want to have one person read a quote about power, and I’m curious what you think. Now I know we have mics, so would someone be willing to volunteer and pop up to a microphone and read what I’ll pull up on the slide?
Thank you. And here you go.
Audience member 28: Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you.
Sharma: And this text, please.
Audience member 28: From The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene.
Sharma: And finally….
Audience member 28: To maintain your independence, you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have. Make people dependent for their happiness and prosperity, and you have nothing to fear. Never teach them enough so they can do without you.
Sharma: How many of you, by a show of hands, agree with this law of power? … No one. A few people. … No.
Audience member 29: I know, two decades ago that was operational.
Sharma: Two decades ago that was operational in the workplace. Have times changed?
Audience member 30: Yes, [inaudible] this is almost exactly the opposite of what we take to our work.
Sharma: It’s the opposite of what we do at work. Other thoughts?
Audience member 31: [Inaudible. Audience laughs.]
Sharma: Effectiveness versus powerful. Let me tell you a quick story. There was a study done in the 1950s about French tobacco workers. The French tobacco workers were the masters of their machines. They knew how to operate their equipment. They decided at one point that they were going to burn their manuals when it came to running the machine. All of their knowledge was codified in their heads.
When new hires came into their organization they were also socialized into this way of working. The managers in this manufacturing plant became entirely dependent on the workers. That is called a power play; that is how you play the game of thrones. Do you agree?
Other thoughts? Yes, please.
Audience member 32: I mean, I think that [inaudible] for one person to have that information and to keep it without other people finding out.
Sharma: Maybe this is about information dissemination: who has information, who has control over that, how they’re sharing it or not with others. Yeah.
Audience member 33: I mean, I don’t disagree at all that this makes you powerful, but I think my reaction to that is that it traps you. It traps you in addition to making you powerful if people are dependent on you to dole out manual instructions. If you want to move beyond manual instructions, well, you can’t, because you’re needed in that space.
Audience member 33: So, I think it’s kind of like a double-edged sword.
Sharma: Yeah. Double-edged sword is one of my favorite phrases, and when I teach my students about power, I try to help them understand difficult perspectives. Power is less about right or wrong and black or white; it tends to be a very gray and messy area.
Now, you mentioned this word dependent. Certainly when others rely on us, as you know from the definition of power, it’s how you become more powerful. Interestingly in the social networks research, there’s also data that suggests that when you are at the center of what’s called a bow tie network structure, disparate groups rely on you exclusively to transmit information. Information is power, so you do have influence and control in your organization; you have impact. It’s also stressful and exhausting.
The concern from an institutional perspective becomes that if I’m at the center of that bow tie, what happens if I leave? Those disparate groups remain disconnected, likely. Again, more complexity around the idea of power and what it takes to have influence or control in your organization.
Has anyone, by the way, read The 48 Laws of Power? Pretty Machiavellian in terms of its views on how to interact with others. A fun fact is that a sequel came out called The 50th Law of Power [sic]. It was written by Robert Greene and 50 Cent—very much about the laws of power on the streets.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about where does power come from? This is, I think, a really important question that hopefully will hit home with some one of you.
Now, the real premise of this part of the workshop is, does power come from who you are, or does it come from the situation that you are in?
Now, when I teach about power, I like to tell students that this is a conversation very similar to the debate on leadership. Are leaders born or are they made? Now, according to Professor Pfeffer from Stanford Business School, he says that it’s really critical to understand where power comes from for two reasons: It can help you diagnose other people’s power. It can also help you build power on your own.
Now, the person-based perspective suggests power is about who you are. It’s about your attributes. It’s about your characteristics. This is the fundamental sort of source of whether or not you have control and influence. Who you are at the end of the day is what makes a difference.
Now, you know I’m going to ask you at some point where you think power comes from. I’m hoping this is starting to plant some seeds.
What I want you to do now is to take the assessment that you have in front of you in hard copy. This is called political skill. I want you to go through the statements and I want you to answer the questions with your gut. If you’re an over-thinker like me, I want you to suppress that urge. I want you to answer instinctively. There are no right or wrong answers, and the information is for your eyes only. We’ll continue the conversation in a minute or two. [Pause]
I think we’re about done. My first question for you is: What was it like completing these statements? How comfortable were you with some of the wording, for example?
A parent’s sincerity. What do you think about some of the statements? I want you to think about this, because political skill is sort of a tricky topic sometimes to teach about, and people tend to have varying views about whether or not it’s appropriate even for the work setting.
I like to teach my students that most of what I bring into the classroom generally has a good, bad, and an ugly side. Now formally, political skill is defined as the ability to effectively understand others at work and to use this knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance your personal and/or the organization’s objectives.
The Center for Creative Leadership has talked a lot about political skill, and one of the questions they’ve explored is whether political skill can be learned, and the short answer is generally yes. The more interesting question I have for you is whether you think political skill reflects manipulation, sincerity, authenticity. Where do you fall on these different options when it comes to using some of the behaviors that you’ve just reported on? Heads are nodding.
When you think about political skill, I often find that people vary in their comfort level when it comes to using some of the behaviors that are described. I can tell you that there typically tends to be different perspectives on political skill, that the research has suggested.
We know, for example, that there are benefits to political skill—but there are also consequences, there’s a darker side. Now, some of the benefits include job performance, especially in enterprising contexts, which, as you see on the slide, are those settings which encourage people to manipulate others to attain one’s goal and to view the world in terms of money, power, status, and responsibility.
Is this everyone’s organization is the question I would ask you.
I did a podcast at the start of the summer on powerlessness, and the host, who’s a UNLV alumnus, asked me if I think politics are inevitable in organizations, and my answer was absolutely. However, I think organizations and individuals vary in the level of politics that will surface, depending on a host of other factors, individual attributes, the organization’s culture, the reward system, and so forth.
We also know that political skill will yield you on average more money, a higher hierarchical position; and for early-career employees, they’re typically more satisfied in their jobs.
Now, we know there is this darker side, according to what CCL has looked at with political skill. When it comes to social awareness, one of the categories that you were asked to report on, we know that if you over-analyze others to the point of being perceived as judgment or labeling, political skill can backfire. There’s sort of a tipping point that you have to be mindful of.
A second point about consequences includes the idea of influence. Now, one of my pet peeves as a leadership scholar is when people manage up only if they’re a leader, but they fail to manage laterally or downward in terms of the relationships. The technical phrase is called sucking up.
The third category that can also reflect a consequence is networking. So this is a huge topic, obviously, for business school students. At Wharton it was top of mind, very similar at UNLV. What we like to tell students from the political skill research is that it’s important to have a lot of connections and to know people, and certainly social media has influenced this heavily. The downside is when your ties start to lack depth or meaning. Even more sort of controversial is if you come off as highly instrumental. Are you simply out to gain something for yourself without thinking about the other individual.
One of my favorite cases that I teach in my Power in Politics and Organizations class is on a local figure named Heidi Roizen. Does anyone know Heidi? She’s a pretty interesting woman who has mastered the art of relationships.
According to Heidi, the most important aspect of relationships is ensuring the relationships are win-win. She often talks in interviews, and her case study about having a relationship with Bill Gates. She does not drink at that well often, and when she does, she always makes sure that the opportunity is a good fit on both sides.
Now, for highly instrumental people, this tends to be revolutionary thinking—again, really making sure that relationship is benefiting both parties and not using one person for your own gain.
The last consequence for political skill, according to the CCL folks, is the idea of coming across as sincere versus manipulative, using people. Are you authentic, are you genuine, are you real.
Has anyone in the room heard of Robert Cialdini and his research on influence? He has written a couple of excellent books on the idea of using different tactics and strategies to influence others. What Cialdini says is that words should not be weapons. When you use the science of what he has studied in influencing others, it’s about coming across as authentic and genuine, and actually trying to form meaningful relationships.
So one of his strategies is that people tend to like those that like them back. When we tell students about interviewing, we often suggest: Try to find common ground with the person that’s interviewing you. That’s how you build a relationship. That’s how you find ways to be authentic and sincere.
Political skill, as you can see again, has this good, bad, and ugly side.
Now when it comes to the person-based perspective, Professor Pfeffer also says there are a number of critiques. This is not the best way to look at where power comes from, for the following reasons: First and foremost, he says that personal attributes are very difficult to alter. I like to tell my students that if you’re introverted, like me for example, it’s exhausting to try to come across as an extrovert. So know yourself is one of the takeaways.
A second critique of thinking about where power comes from and basing it in the person perspective is the notion of causality. So when I teach, we often talk about situations where it’s difficult to decipher if charisma, for example, leads to power, or do we think those who are powerful are charismatic. It’s hard to uncouple that feedback loop.
The third critique is that Pfeffer says we actually need to focus not on the person but how people end up in certain situations. This is more valuable.
Now, one of the takeaways I tell my students is that if they come into my Power and Politics in Organizations class and they feel uncomfortable when I say that power is a game, that you have to understand how to play by the rules, that the rules are often unspoken and unwritten, what I will tell them is that Professor Pfeffer says that if you’re uncomfortable with power, it’s because that you think life is fair. And let me tell you, life is not fair. We do not all have the same starting point. People have different access to resources, to opportunities.
The uplifting message, though, and what I have found in my research and teaching, is that power is accessible to anybody. Positional power is how we define leaders. Other forms of power exist, as we’ll talk about, including personal power, the value that you create, your reputation, your track record, unique skills sets that you offer, and relational power, networking power—Heidi Roizen again being one of the examples and, perhaps some of you will say, LBJ.
According to the situation perspective that power comes from the structure that you’re in, we have talked about the following in the research and in teaching. Pfeffer says it’s really about being in the right place. This is more important than who you are a person.
Now, when I think about the leadership debate, are leaders born or made, one of the questions I would ask you is as follows: Do you think people that are genetically disposed to leadership (however you define that) but are not in the right environment, can they still become leaders? What if you are not genetically disposed to become a leader as you define that, but you are in the right environment?
These are some of the questions that I’m hoping will plant seeds, linking back to the idea of whether power comes from you as a person or the situation that you are in.
Now of course Pfeffer, being the power researcher he is, says that not everyone knows how to play the game. This is an important part of understanding power dynamics.
For him, being in the right place means the following: Do you have control over resources, hearkening back to the definition of power, budgets, facilities, positions that can be used to cultivate allies and supporters?
In my hip-hop research, I have found that video models who accurately diagnose the power landscape tend to be most protected from mistreatment. They will often come to a set and there will be some segment of video models who immediately make a beeline for the rapper. And we actually see in the data that one of the motives for being a video model is to become impregnated by a rapper, the person wearing the bling, the jewelry, the entourage, and so forth.
Who do you think is the most powerful player on a video set? Do you think it is the rapper? Director? Producer? Camera man? Producer, record label? More often than not, unless you’re Beyoncé, it is the director. That is the person that is calling the shots.
What I often tell my students is that when you are diagnosing your power landscape, you need to figure out, quickly, who is the person with control over resources.
Directors often oversee a casting director, in terms of hiring decisions that are made. They’re also the ones that are deciding [on] the most valuable currency to a video model: camera time. Because when video models are coming onto a set, they’re more likely to get hired if their camera time goes well, if they get referrals from directors. We often also see in our data that video models that cultivate allies with the camera man, with the people running the lights, with the makeup artists—they are creating, essentially, a tribe of protectors who might travel with them from set to set to set.
One of the most fascinating findings in this line of work is that video models rarely form alliances with each other. Video models are described in the limited number of articles we’ve read about this, in the scholarship, as interchangeable bodies without active voices.
The work is highly competitive, they’re workers in the gig economy. Forming alliances with other video models can actually tarnish your reputation and have you come off as being disagreeable.
One of the findings that we have been discussing: What if video model A says, “I’m walking off set if you mistreat video model B.” Well guess what, video models C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, are all lining up to take your place.
Power is tricky. Forming alliances can certainly give you a source of protection, but again, you need to accurately diagnose that structure that the power dynamics are coming out in.
Pfeffer also says that being in the right place means having control or access over information. In social networks research, we will often sit down in an organization and map out the informal organizational chart. What social networks research will often find is that the formal organization chart does not map the informal organizational chart in terms of who has power.
We often tell leaders in organizations: If you want to have influence, if you want to change your culture, you need to go to the grassroots level and find out who are your movers and shakers. More than likely, it is not an executive. It’s also really funny for us when we have social networks maps showing informal ties, and executives who think very highly of themselves often end up on the margins of that informal map. Which is also why we don’t label maps, because we don’t want to get fired from our consulting gigs.
Information, however, I think is one of those sources of power that people who are powerless can access. I know in my experience, I have close ties with senior faculty who come to me for information. I’m creating a relationship of dependence.
The third point that I hope you’ll remember about the structural perspective is that being in the right place can mean having formal authority, the positional power that I was describing earlier. The Nuremberg trials are often an extreme example of this, where people did what they were told simply because it was their bosses that were telling them what to do. The situation matters.
Now that you’ve kind of warmed up your thinking about person versus situation for power, I want you to turn your attention to LBJ.
There are some extra hard copies of the case. If you did not read, I will definitely cold call you. I’m just kidding, I won’t do that.
There are a few questions that I would like for you to turn to a partner and discuss for a few moments. This is, again, to warm up your thinking. The questions that I want you to start with is: To what extent did LBJ’s power come from his personality or the situation? Why? I want you to explain this with examples from the case.
The second question that I want you to answer is: To what extent did you perceive that LBJ was manipulative with his plays for power?
Finally—this is my favorite question—would you hire him to be on your team?
Take a few minutes and let’s see what you come up with. [Audience murmurs.]
All right, I think there’s a lull in the conversations, which is my cue.
I’d like to begin by taking a survey. How many of you, by a show of hands, would hire LBJ to be on your team? Own that.
One, two, three, four, five, six. Alex, why would you hire LBJ to be on your team, and can we possibly get you a mic?
Alex: I’m 51% toward hiring him, and 49% toward not, but I think, for me, he gets things done. I think there’s this question of is it ethical or not, but I think that everything that he’s doing is to serve a larger purpose, it always ties to serving a larger purpose and that the purpose is, it seems, generally moral. So I don’t know that I would go so far as to say the end justifies the means, but I don’t think his manipulation is … I don’t know that I’d classify it as taking advantage of people. I do think it would be framing things in a way that they would relate to him.
Sharma: He was a professional son who had his daddies come to separate meals on Sundays so they wouldn’t learn about each other and he could protect both relationships. Ethical? Moral? Appropriate? Strategic.
How about control? Validating? Impact? Words [that] were associated with power. Now I’m curious that the majority of you said no, you would not hire him. Would someone be willing to explain why? Please.
Irene: Two reasons. In hindsight, you can see that some of his work led to the betterment, or progress. But, in the moment, to make that bet and to think that the means justify the ends is a very big risk to take. So, to that end, no. And then also I would think about collateral damage and what happens, so for a short-term gain, what’s the long-term negative impact.
Sharma: Sure, yeah. The means justifying the ends I think is a really interesting question. Often when this case is taught, I find that people say, he was focused on civil rights, he was focused on the needs of others, he was helping a marginalized population. The question I would also pose is: Is that only what motivated him? What if he was doing it because he wanted power? And maybe hindsight is 20/20, that looking back now we can think about, constructively, why he did what he did and maybe it was for the betterment of society. Would we feel more or less comfortable if the case was written in a way where he simply wanted to have more control and influence in government?
Where do you think LBJ’s power came from? Was it his person, his personality, or was it the situation or the structure in which he was embedded? Please.
Audience member 34: I think the situation definitely played a huge part, and he was mostly able to get a lot of that legislation with the momentum gained from John F. Kennedy’s assassination. There was a lot more positive sentiment on his side.
Audience member 34: He may have had a personality that set him up well to utilize the situation, but the situation I think was huge.
Sharma: Yeah, when you think about socially, economically, and politically what was happening at this time in history, I think it was fertile ground for an LBJ to rise to power. You also know from the case for those that read that he grew up in poverty himself; he knew what it felt like to be marginalized, and this probably planted some seeds that later influenced his philosophy, his tactics, and the goals on which he focused.
Other thoughts? Did his power come from who he was or the situation in which he was embedded? Yes.
Audience member 35: [Inaudible] frame the question like, which situation was he embedded? The situation where he grew up poor? That’s not fertile ground for power.
Audience member 36: So I think that’s a strong case [that] the personal characteristics that drove him to acquire power and put himself in certain situations were significant given that beginning.
Sharma: Yes, absolutely. Would you hire him to be on your team?
Audience member 36: I opted for not.
Sharma: And why?
Audience member 36: You mentioned all organizations have politics, but there’s a different level of how much, and I think that’s a lot of politics to sign on for, at least more so than I experience here, so I think that would be a sea change in how the organization behaved and would have huge externalities, plus the main things that he was concerned about are not necessarily…. He was a teacher, actually; that’s in his favor.
Sharma: Yes, we like that.
Audience member 36: But I think we look at benefits to other people, and we hope that what we do is empowering people to rise out of poverty. That isn’t actually the main, direct mission of our company, and so maybe he would do better in a company where that is a core, direct result of what he’s doing.
Sharma: Yes. When I talk to my students when they interview for jobs, I often tell them that it’s a two-way exchange of information. There seems to be this power-asymmetry mental model that students have, where the recruiter has more power than they do. Certainly from a positional perspective that’s true, but you’re given lots of data about the culture and how political people are during the interview process.
I like to tell my students that I think it’s more important to find cultures and companies and industries that fit who they are and in terms of how much they are willing to play the game or not, and whether there is in fact a heightened sense of a game in that particular setting.
This is, I think, what actually yields success in careers, longevity, and so forth. But it’s not the way that we teach our students to approach interviews.
When I teach Power and Politics in Organizations, I’m also struck by the fact that the majority of the students have never talked about some of these topics. The dinner table conversation proverbially did not talk about political skill or how to network in effective ways where you come across as sincere. So my teaching pedagogy in using this case as an example is to help students figuratively be armed for situations that may be inevitable, depending on the landscape in which they are working.
There seems to be a mindset that power is fixed. It’s actually dynamic, it’s changing. Because power is accessible to anyone, it’s fragile. And actually my boxing project, I’ve titled it “The Power Pendulum,” because of how much we see that power plays can swing back and forth.
One of my favorite studies—I think it’s my favorite research on power—was done by Elijah Wee at the University of Washington. Elijah studied the idea of power asymmetry and abuse of supervision. Abuse of supervision, as you might realize, is a form of workplace mistreatment. It’s one of those behaviors that, once you experience it, you tend to feel lower levels of value, self-worth, and control in your environment.
What Elijah and his colleagues found is that when you work for an abusive supervisor, as an employee, you can change the game and you can rewrite the rules. What they found exactly is that, through survey research—they collected different measures—and they found that once you’ve been abused by your supervisor, you can change the game in two ways.
The first way is to create value, to find ways to make your supervisor more dependent on you than the other way around. Unique skills sets. Think about the French tobacco workers.
The other way that they found that there was a shift in the power dynamic is when employees started to create coalitions. So this is related to the idea of allies. Basically, a group of employees who reported to the same abusive supervisor started to ban together. There were a number of outcomes that followed after the employees had been abused. One, abusive leaders were less likely to mistreat their employees. The abuse did not beget abuse. The cycle was broken.
Two, the abusive leader was more likely to engage in reconciliation with the abused employees. This was groundbreaking in management research, because once you’re abused, again, if you feel powerless, it’s hard to know what to do; people tend to feel stuck. It’s one of the most destructive experiences in the work setting.
Elijah’s research again is showing us is that power is not fixed; it’s dynamic. People can access it. You can change power dynamics, and LBJ is certainly an example of that.
What I want you to remember, if you remember nothing [else] about this talk, is the idea that power is about fit, it’s about matching the person to the situation. Pfeffer likes to say that it’s about the fit between who you are—your style, skills, or capacities—as well as the requirement of the situation that you are in. This is, again, why it’s important to think about what type of industry or organization you might fit when it comes to power dynamics.
Pfeffer likes to say we can probably best understand sources of power as deriving from who you are as a person and the advantages that the situation provides. It’s really the intersection, or combination.
In management research, one of the most classic theoretical perspectives is called Person Situation Interaction, illustrating these ideas as well as what we’re seeing in the case with LBJ. The match is fundamentally what matters when it comes to understanding from where does power come.
Now, I want to ask you one final question. In 2015, the New York Times Magazine put out a poll on Twitter, and the question was as follows: “If you could go back and kill baby Hitler, would you do so?” I want you to take a minute and talk with a partner to answer this final question, and then I’ll be curious to see what you would say. Would you go back and kill baby Hitler?
Sharma: All right, let’s come back as a group. I’m going to do one final survey. How many of you, by a show of hands, say yes, you would kill baby Hitler? Couple of you—oh, more on this side, you would kill baby Hitler.
How many say no by a show of hands? More. Any people in the middle or unsure.
Audience member 37: Can we adopt baby Hitler?
Sharma: Ah, I haven’t heard that one before. Irene, why would you kill Baby Hitler?
Irene: I wouldn’t.
Sharma: Oh, you wouldn’t. Why? And do we have a mic? Please tell us, why would you not kill baby Hitler?
Irene: Well, I’m not sure I can kill him, and that’s why I wouldn’t kill him. But also, maybe if I killed baby Hitler, another Hitler would have come along and the world had to go through this experience somehow.
Irene: So I just cannot kill baby Hitler.
Sharma: So one argument is we’re not going to kill him because we actually can’t, but even if we did, there would be someone else who would come around and be a Hitler.
Irene: Maybe, yeah.
Sharma: Chris, your head is nodding, do you agree?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, I would agree.
Sharma: Can you tell me more?
Chris: I think the social situation was such that Hitler was able to succeed because of the biases and the predilections of people around him. So his quest for power reflected the values of the people who he got in power by being connected with.
Sharma: Interesting. Others, do you agree or disagree. Over here.
Audience member 38: I think to go back to someone’s comment, can you adopt him? To say you would kill him means you believe in a deterministic universe where Hitler was always going to be Hitler. So …
Audience member 38: It’s a little complex.
Sharma: The Atlantic did an analysis of this particular question, and what they said is that generally when people say they want to kill baby Hitler, it’s because of the ethics of the situation, that you kill Hitler and the Holocaust does not happen. Forty percent of people said yes, they would kill him in the survey results. Thirty percent said no, they would not, and about 30% said they were not sure.
Now, in the analysis that The Atlantic describes, it’s exactly what Chris and others have said: The situation was right. This was a combination of who Hitler was and the history, the politics, the economic forces that were pressing down that brought him to power. The argument The Atlantic makes is that even if you killed baby Hitler, just like Irene said, another Hitler would rise to power.
Hearkening back to the question, where does power come from? Is it person or is it situation? This is one of my favorite illustrations, where it seems like it’s a combination of both. Now, as you think about the content we’ve covered over the last hour or so, I’d like for you to write down now or later your responses to these questions to see what you’ve learned and what you can take away.
What are one or two lessons that might come to mind? How does the information presented help you think differently about power, whether it’s in your life or in your career? Hopefully, again, some seeds have been planted, and you can answer these questions and think about value that you can create, for example, in the relationships that you have with other people.
I also want to leave you with resources, some of my favorite resources that I use when I think about power, which I do quite a bit. At the start of the summer, I did a podcast on powerlessness that I’ve provided to Alex for circulation. If you’re interested in learning more about my views on power, the research that I do, as well as connections back to stress and well-being, this podcast covers a wide range of topics.
There’s also a podcast by one of my favorite people ever, Martha Beck, called Stepping into Your [Own] Power. Martha is a PhD from Harvard. She specialized in sociology and then gave that up to become a life coach. Oprah Winfrey calls her one of the smartest women she’s ever met. I have this podcast to be quite transformative in thinking about feeling empowered in your own life.
There is also a really fascinating podcast by a professor named Adam Galinksy on how to speak up for yourself. Adam does a really nice job integrating research as well as practice and thinking about politics and organizations. He presents a lot of really fun facts, including that there is a phenomena called a Mama Bear Syndrome, and that when you’re trying to speak up for yourself, being a mama bear is actually politically advantageous. It’s where you speak up and advocate for others around you.
In terms of books, the book that I use in my Power and Politics in Organizations class is called Managing with Power, by Pfeffer. My students often give me feedback that this becomes their professional bible, as they have put it, given the amount of information on navigating power dynamics.
There is also an Audible that came out which I found really fascinating. It’s from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Adam Grant from the Wharton School, one of my former colleagues, basically talked with people in positions of power, including heads of countries, and created this podcast called Power Moves, Lessons from Davos. What’s fascinating about the podcast is that Adam actually talks about how people wanted to get in to the World Economic Forum but were not invited, so they created their own table to sit at, and he calls that creating relational power. You’re not waiting to be invited; you create your own sandbox in which the power dynamics come out and play.
I think it’s a really interesting commentary, especially given what’s going on in the world today. I highly recommend it and it provides a very nice overview and synthesis of the power research.
As I mentioned earlier, Robert Cialdini is a thought leader when it comes to practicing how to influence others. He has a number of books. One of his is called Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion. He is out of Arizona State; also a very thoughtful scholar when it comes to power dynamics and understanding relationship management.
I hope you will find these resources helpful. I thank you for your time, your energy, and your comments, and I’m happy to answer any questions.