Why the secret to gaining power is different today

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A boy shakes the hand of Pope Francis as he greets migrants and refugees at Moria refugee camp near the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Andrea Bonetti/Reuters/Greek PM Press Office/Handout via Reuters

Editor’s Note: Power. What do we have to do to get it? And once we do get it, why is it so hard to hold on to?

In search of the answer, economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke to psychologist Dacher Keltner, author of the new book “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence.” Making Sen$e first interviewed Keltner for our “Money on the Mind” segment. In a series of studies, Keltner and University of California researcher Paul Piff found that “upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.” For example, luxury cars were more likely to break the law (i.e. not stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk) than low-status cars. Keltner’s new book builds upon such research.

For more on the topic, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour, and watch our “Money on the Mind” report below. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

–Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor


Paul Solman: So what is the “power paradox”?

Dacher Keltner: The power paradox is that we gain power by advancing the welfare of other people and yet when we feel powerful, it turns us into impulsive sociopaths and we lose those very skills.

Paul Solman: How do we gain power?

“The irony is that once we feel powerful and we are taken with our own success, we ignore the skills that got us power in the first place.”

Dacher Keltner: What we find is that in different kinds of groups — kids on grammar school playgrounds, people at work, people in the military, people organizing in the community — gain power by doing things that advance the greater good, that bring about resources and rewards for other people.

Paul Solman: Greater good for that community?

Dacher Keltner: That’s right. So if you’re kids on the school playground, you rise in the esteem of your peers if you’re making people laugh and building strong ties. If you’re in the military, you gain power by forging strong ties in your comrades. And then the irony is that once we feel powerful and we are taken with our own success, we ignore the skills that got us power in the first place.

Paul Solman: Specifically, what do people do to gain power by doing stuff for other people in their group?

Dacher Keltner: This is one of the most intriguing questions in social science: if you drop a person into a new school, or you go to a new organization and you start work, what do you do to gain power? How do you rise in the ranks? And we have this old cultural notion that power really goes to the Machiavellians in the world, those who backstab and pit people against each other and are deceptive and manipulative…

Paul Solman: And are always strategizing.

Dacher Keltner: Right. There have been a lot of different studies of how people rise in power, and they really refute the Machiavellian thesis. What studies find is, if you’re enthusiastic and you’re open to new ideas and you listen really well and you express gratitude and you share resources, really simple strategies, you rise in the ranks in just about every context that’s been studied.

Paul Solman: Nobody studied Renaissance Florence, right? It may not have been true in the past.

“There have been a lot of different studies of how people rise in power, and they really refute the Machiavellian thesis.”
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s really important. We think about the legacy of Machiavelli, and he’s still with us today in so many different ways, but you have to remember Machiavelli wrote in what people think may have been the most violent time in human history; a very violent period in Renaissance Italy.

Paul Solman: Why didn’t working for the greater good work back then?

Dacher Keltner: So Machiavelli has this thesis that power is about force, fraud and if you read him carefully, violence.

Paul Solman: Better to be feared than loved.

Dacher Keltner: Right, and that still is one of the most popular aphorisms or ideas we have about power, but if you think back to those times, there was very little rule of law. There was no real journalism to hold people accountable. There were oligarchies and the transfer of wealth to your kin. And there was, as many have documented, a general acceptance of violence. So, if you want to rise to power, you kill people. As histories evolved, within these 500 hundred years and really even in the last 40 to 50 years, we’ve seen this dramatic shift in what it takes to get power.

Paul Solman: The shift towards?

Dacher Keltner: A shift away from assertion, aggression, coercion and manipulation to building community, developing strong ties, and as political theorist Hannah Arendt said, stirring other people to effective action. That’s how we get things done today.

Paul Solman: Why would there be such a difference? How is it that we have evolved?

Dacher Keltner: I think that’s one of the most intriguing questions. When scientists surveyed people 40 years ago and asked, “What does it take to be a great leader?” They would say, “It’s that bold, assertive, domineering type of individual who ran the great newspaper or the great corporation.” And today, people are much more likely to say, “It’s the person who’s listening well, and sort of integrating people’s ideas and building strong ties.” And there are a lot of reasons why it’s changed. One is, work has changed. Most work today is much more collaborative, interdisciplinary and complex than it was 40 to 50 years ago. When I do research in my lab, it’s this big complicated entity with statisticians and people who know about physiology and so on.

“The great leaders, people like Abe Lincoln, sure, they have brilliant arguments and cutting edge notions, but they’re also unifiers in how they tell stories.”
You need to rely on other people to get your work done. I think another reason power has changed is the influx of people from different cultures in the United States; we’re much more multi-ethnic and that’s changed the face of power. And then there are more women in leadership positions, and they have a different way of leading. So I think those forces have really reshaped the nature of power.

Paul Solman: When critics of modern society say America has become too feminized, you say “Thank goodness. America has become more feminized”?

Dacher Keltner: I do. The data are starting to indicate that this is a positive development. So there are studies, for example by Credit Suisse, looking at organizations who have more women in leadership positions and those organizations do better in terms of the bottom line. I think more generally what studies are finding is that when you have leaders who, quote, are “feminized” and they’re listening well, and asking good questions and being a little bit more compassionate. Those organizations, those units fare better. They are more innovative, studies find. The workers are more committed to the work. They have fewer sick leave days. So change is painful, but I think in this case it’s good for the greater good.

Paul Solman: So if you’re advising somebody watching now, you say to them, here’s what to do to gain power. What do they do? You have this whole set of rules there right?

Dacher Keltner: What I advise people to do is to honor what we used to call the soft skills of power, because they turn out to be more essential today than before. Which is: Listen carefully. Don’t be impulsive. Don’t arrogantly insert your opinion. Express gratitude. Cultivate a culture of respect. Show your respect for other people’s efforts. Promote a culture of equality, too, where everybody’s opinion matters. Tell stories. One of the surprising discoveries in this new literature on power is that the great leaders, people like Abe Lincoln, sure, they have brilliant arguments and cutting edge notions, but they’re also unifiers in how they tell stories that illustrate collective principles. So what I suggest is that there are all these kind of personal, social strategies that turn out to be more important today than ever.

Paul Solman: What kind of story?

Dacher Keltner: Well, what studies find is when people tell stories that unite the community or the organization that they work for and illustrate the principles of that organization, those people rise in the social standing in that group. They rise in power.

Paul Solman: But if I’m a good story-teller but I’m always telling stories about myself…

Dacher Keltner: It’s not as effective. That’s right.

Paul Solman: So I have to tell a story that you can relate to.

Dacher Keltner: Exactly. We study this in really unusual ways. We’ve studied it, for example, in how fraternity members tell stories about other fraternity members and how sorority members tell stories. We’ve actually infiltrated a little basketball camp and looked at how basketball campers are kind of joking on the sidelines. And what we find across these different contexts is the young people who have high status and respect in their peer’s eyes are telling really funny stories that kind of make fun of why they are at the basketball camp or illustrate the unique character of the sorority. It’s just this really interesting quality to the storytelling that unites rather than singles out the storyteller or denigrates others.

Paul Solman: When I was at college, the story was people in the past gained power through charisma, that special something. Is that still true?

Dacher Keltner: I think it’s true that we need to rethink what charisma is according to science. There are all these new studies that are showing — and actually this is a principle that goes way back in human history — if you have that spark that inspires other people, if you have a spark that gives resources to other people, that shares in really collaborative fashion, a spark of wit that kind of tells a story that gives people novel perspective of something, that’s the kind of charisma that really leads to lasting power. It’s not the kind of charisma that’s seductive and self-aggrandizing. It’s really a sort of a kind of social energy that really brings about the best in other people.

Paul Solman: The first use of charisma that I’m aware of is the German Max Weber talking about why the barbarians would follow one person or another.

Dacher Keltner: Right. And a lot of these principles that we’re talking about can be put to pernicious end. So if you have the kind of social qualities that get you power that we’ve been talking about — the ability to stir enthusiasm in other people, the ability to formulate a question that brings out the most imaginative thinking of other people, the ability to tell an inspiring story that’s morally uplifting. One of the things that we should be worried about is that those very same qualities could be part of the stirring of mass movements that Max Weber was worried about: Nazism and those kinds of movements. But in general, those qualities tend to be the kind of properties that make groups stronger and lead to people to be rewarded with power.

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