The Power Paradox: How to Gain Influence and Use It Responsibly

Power is part of every interaction. It's our job to use it right.

All of us, for the most part, want to use our power and influence to help others. We work hard for our money, our contacts, our expertise, and intend to use them to make a meaningful difference in the world. But there’s a catch: What if power changes us in ways that affect our personality and even our ability to do good? How we handle our power, then, is something we must take very seriously.

This is the subject of a new book by behavioral psychologist Dacher Keltner, a phenomenon he calls the Power Paradox. “We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power from what is worst,” Keltner says. “We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world, by enhancing the lives of others,” he explains, “but the very experience of having power and privilege causes us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”

Keltner, who’s been a researcher on the topic for years, adds science to Lord Acton’s old dictum that power corrupts absolutely. His studies have shown that power is given to people who are open, kind, and enthusiastic. But they’ve also shown that those who are powerful are more likely to cheat, lack empathy, be impolite, steal candy, and have affairs.

Keltner nonetheless emphasizes the more noble side of power. We are social and cooperative animals. Our species depended on, and continues to depend on, the collective well-being of the group. And it’s by this very rubric by which the group decides to allocate power. Those who are selfish, untrustworthy, and greedy do not fare well, and those who are helpful, understanding, and generous are bolstered by the group. As Keltner says, “power is given, not grabbed.”

The Big Five: Qualities of the Powerful

Studies from the likes of Keltner and others in the field have studied the way power behaves in college dorms, hospitals, businesses, and more. From this research he outlines a group of qualities, called the Big Five, used to determine what makes someone powerful. They are:

Enthusiasm. The willingness to reach out to others, to be bold and adventurous.

Kindness. The capacity to be giving, cooperative, and generous, to dignify others, reach out to them, and appreciate their work.

Focus. The tendency to prioritize shared goals, to help others stay on task and fulfill their potential.

Calmness. To display a perspective that keeps grace and tranquility when others are uneasy and stressed, as well as the ability to unite the group with tools like storytelling.

Openness. To be receptive to the feelings and ideas of others.

Attitudes Toward Power

Despite the book’s pleasant findings, we’re a cynical bunch when it comes to power. We imagine our politicians and financiers to be crooks. We believe that the echelons of power are driven by self-interest and deceitfulness. Our perceptions seem like they were taken right from House of Cards or a Scorcese movie. And just the same, it is tempting to act as a passive audience rather than exhaustingly engage with it.

A recent article in the Boston Globe discussed the political influence (or lack thereof) of Jon Stewart. Ultimately, for all the laughs at flawed and malfunctioning power, the satirical Daily Show incited no one to action or even a change of attitude. No matter the satire, its ultimate effect was to extract laughter from an intransigent truth: Our government is dysfunctional and corrupt, and it will always be that way.

This is not to say that our cynicism is misplaced. Power, as even Keltner observes, produces scoundrels of the highest order. But this does not mean we are absolved of responsibility. We still must participate in these systems of power, however compromising it may feel.

How To Choose a Leader, a new book by Maurizio Viroli, applies the philosophy of Machiavelli to advise our predicament today as citizens. Viroli uses Machiavelli to shift the focus of his work away from leaders and toward citizens. Power, we find once again, is given by the group.

To Dacher Keltner, Machiavelli is a philosophical encumbrance. The Italian theorist represents everything that has gone wrong with our conception of power. He is not alone. Leo Strauss, in his own book on the figure, called Machiavelli a “teacher of evil.” To many, he is the emblem of fear-over-love, ambition, secret dealings, and the vicious pursuit of self-interest over all.

Viroli, however, attempts to shake his inspiration free of his reputation as conniving powerslave. He reminds us that Machiavelli was honest and even poor, despite handling large sums of money for the powerful. He held to the belief that a strong republic always prioritizes the common good, and it is a citizen’s and a leader’s job to keep that in mind for the proper allocation of power.

That theorists of power are split on Machiavelli is but a small example of the differing attitudes on the subject. Machiavelli, especially in his comfort with the highest rulers, is likely to rub us the wrong way. It is hard to sympathize with the ambitions of the most powerful, for they are the least in need of more. Pete Seeger may have said it best when he advised us to look for many small leaders rather than great ones. To see power used in its best form, we have to take it upon ourselves, wielding it in the most basic and everyday matters.

The Trappings of Great Power

How do you get power and use it for good? Dacher Keltner has some advice on the matter. To avoid being corrupted by power, it helps to be aware of its trappings. Behavioral psychologists have researched voluminously on the matter. Among other things, research has found that:

Drivers of expensive cars are most likely to assume right of way before other cars and pedestrians.

People made to feel more powerful are less empathetic, as proven by the lack of engagement in motor neurons and an inability to take the perspective of others.

Those who report themselves to be more powerful are more likely to steal candy from a bowl reserved for children (they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, as well).

They are more likely to demean employees with rudeness and incivility in the office.

There is also a phenomenon of power that Keltner does not confront so fully. It is true that those who are self-serving and disloyal, those who take credit for themselves and talk only of themselves, do not get very far in the workplace. But this works best at the lower levels of the professional world. Once one has power, qualities that go against the collective good are easier to tolerate. A rude and self-centered athlete will still get put in the game and given lucrative endorsements if he is talented. The same goes for CEOs and politicians and actors who can continue business as usual. Institutions are a tricky thing, and care less about the person than it does about contributions to its own survival.

This is not to say that the powerful are given impunity, but that their failings are more readily tolerated. To fight against this, it is crucial that one is sensitive to the very pitfalls of power, especially those of character. In the end, power should make us more generous and tranquil, not more greedy and egotistical.

Instead, we should refocus on what contributed to our power in the first place.

Things like:

Caring for the greater good. Human ingenuity has traditionally been the product of collective action. We hunted big game by working in packs. We raised vulnerable offspring by cooperating together. In a primitive setting, the ambitious and self-serving individual would be seen as entirely burdensome, and would be given only marginal influence by the group. It was he or she who helped the group that became powerful. The principle is just the same today.

Being grateful. As opposed to the ever-taking and cheating candy-grabbers, the truly powerful are calm and appreciative. Gratitude comes from an appreciation of the works of others and an enjoyment of what one has. People flock to the grateful. And among other health benefits, gratitude contributes to lowered stress and activations of the pleasure circuits in the brain.

Having empathy. Unfortunately, power makes us more impulsive and self-centered. That’s why it is essential to continue to be empathetic, however hard it may be. And empathy should come naturally to a successful leader. No leader will be good without knowing the passions and concerns of who she leads, nor will a business get very far without understanding the demands and priorities of its customers. Empathy is a way to unity and meaningful collaboration. Many even say that awareness of others’ (especially employees’) emotional needs is the number one indicator of a good leader.

Helping others. It so happens that the best use of power is also the same thing that feeds it. Those who appreciate the contributions of others, encourage them to achieve their best work, and connect them to meaningful resources and information, are always going to be in power. “When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people who act in his name.” It is the exclusive territory of others to give power to you. And it is your responsibility to keep them in mind.