Menu Close

Acting with Power: Interview with a Research Expert

In this podcast interview, UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner and I discuss the benefits of acting with power in the workplace. We review what is power and how to use power in meetings with dominating colleagues to ensure your voice is heard. Dacher’s research interests span power, status, inequality and social class. He is the author of the best-selling book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and what we’re going to discuss today, the Power Paradox. This interview was conducted in 2016. Below are the extended highlights of our discussion.



Chris Lipp:  What exactly is power?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, I think the idea of power and what it means really changes from context to context, culture to culture, historical period to historical period. But today where we’ve landed and in particular when we think about the 21st century and the US and other cultures is power is your capacity to influence others, and I would even add precision to that – to alter the states of other people. So your power at any moment in time rests upon your ability to influence the thoughts of other people, the emotions, what they’re thinking about, what they’re caring about. So it’s really that moment-to-moment capacity to influence the states of others.

Chris Lipp:  How does power show up in our everyday interactions? Can you give an example?

Dacher Keltner:  So power is, if you take Bertrand Russell’s quote, that power is the basic medium in which we relate to others, what that means is that we are continually moving through our social lives and shaped by our feeling of power vis-a-vis other people whether we can influence them or not. Let me tell you one dramatic way in which it really manifests in our day-to-day lives. The Power Paradox as I wrote that book I was thinking about this context in which I grew up which was my parents moved me to a very poor rural town in a very poor county in California, in the Sierras, the Sierra, Nevada. And it was really striking to go from a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles to a very poor lower class poverty-stricken neighborhood in this town. And I saw my friends and they were always feeling … they’re always sort of literally kind of sick and ill and having trouble and suspicious of authority figures and having trouble concentrating in class.

And what we’ve learned is that moment-to-moment experience in their lives of how they felt in school and how they felt in our society is shaped by the fact that they’re really disempowered, that just feeling like they don’t have a chance to make a difference in society stressed out their bodies, stressed out their minds and led to this feeling about life. So power is part of how we relate to everything.

Chris Lipp:  You’re saying a sense of powerlessness can actually have physical consequences.

Dacher Keltner:  Yeah, and that really was the science that spurred me to do 25 years of research on what is power and what does it do to us, is people like Nancy Adler and Edith Chen and Greg Miller and others have been finding for 20 years that my sense of power and rank vis-a-vis other people directly activates regions of the nervous system that have a bearing upon my physical health. So if I feel less powerful than my neighbor for very various reasons, I’m literally showing higher levels of cortisol, greater stress reactivity in my nervous system. And that’s a recipe for really troubled living simply because I don’t feel empowered in my daily life.

Chris Lipp:  Definitely I’m going to ask you some questions about how we can feel more powerful. Before we go there, you talk a lot about enduring power. Can you share what enduring power looks like?

Dacher Keltner:  I think this is one of the deep challenges of social living, is to live a life where you really make a difference in the world which is one way of defining power, and you really make an enduring difference in the world. So the impact you have in your kids’ lives or your partner’s lives or at work or in my case a scholarly discipline that I’m part of. And enduring power in the simplest sense is really rooted in do I do things that continue to advance the welfare of other people, and then the implication is I’ll have a really strong reputation in those people that will then feed into my ability to continue to influence others and continue to make a difference in the world.

So more specifically studies are finding I have an enduring influence on other people. I have a great reputation, I can have a great career if I’m generous and I give opportunities and resources to others. I have an enduring kind of power if I’m empathetic and I know and I really practice the ethic of empathy and listen to people carefully and take in what their wisdom is.

A third piece I think is really about appreciation and gratitude. Adam Smith, the great economist, felt that practicing gratitude was the foundation of strong economic systems or organizations. And we know now that when leaders and parents and community members really show appreciation to others and convey respect, those people will trust them, they will respect them and they will work for them in ways that are the condition of enduring power. So enduring power relies on or depends upon other people wanting to collaborate with us.

Chris Lipp:  You mentioned appreciation, you mentioned generosity and empathy. When we look at kind of the world today though, power doesn’t always show up that way. For example, I mean, we could just look at the recent [2016] elections. So in terms of what you’re talking about how does that compare to sort of the stereotypes of power that we see in authority figures?

Dacher Keltner:  One, and this is something that people interested in power have been grappling with very deeply which is, and I take it on head on in the first chapter of the power paradox, which is that power, what happens in history and society isn’t just the ruling elite or who is the president. There are a lot of changes in the world that are brought about by ordinary citizens, by organizations that aren’t part of the government, et cetera. So power is much more than politics and economics and the like. It’s really about innovation, and there are so many examples today of how in spite of what’s happening in politics a lot of good things happen in society and positive social change.

A second thing that I think that people have grappled with, and this is with respect to Trump who alarms me and unsettles me, is the thing in a funny way he is already the example of the power paradox which is that as follows – he rose to his prominence a lot of analysts are now recognizing by creating a rhetoric or a discourse that really appealed to white working-class whites who have been really left behind and are struggling in today’s economy. And in fact, their health as I review the power paradox is really suffering. So Trump had this kind of mode of campaigning that appealed to them and promised to them he’d lift up their welfare, but now what we’re seeing is he’s abandoning that kind of discourse with the cabinet he’s choosing and the like.

And that’s what I talk about in the power paradox which is we rise to power by promising to advance the welfare of many, the greater good. And then power suddenly leads us to abandon that very promise and gratify our own interests and our narrow concerns. And I think that’s a useful way to already look at the Trump Presidency.

Chris Lipp:  Well, power must obviously operate on a transactional level, and you mentioned generosity, empathy. You haven’t mentioned specifics in terms of Trump’s behavior, but for the listeners what are some actions they can take in a dynamic, in the office for example, to come off as more powerful? Maybe you’ve seen some examples from your own colleagues.

Dacher Keltner:  I mean, in a way it’s funny, Chris, I wrote this book before Trump and we do know from 50 to 60 years of data, surveys from around the world in organizations and finance firms and non-profits and sports teams and so on, I mean, even the Warriors, our local Warriors, their motto, they’re the dominant team right now, their motto is compassion, joy, mindfulness and competition. So our culture has witnessed in many different areas this move towards more collaborative power. And that this whole discussion begs the question that you ask which is, “Well, what do I do? I mean, how do I have power in an organization at work? How do I have power in a volunteer group that I’m part of? How do I gain power?”

Chris Lipp:  Yes.

Dacher Keltner:  And scientists like Cameron Anderson are testing these ideas, and what we’re learning is it’s really very simple and I wrote a piece for the Harvard business review on this, like so it’s really important to speak up. That when we voice our ideas in any group and speak up with care we’ll gain power. It’s really important to share. And there are a lot of cool studies by Rob Miller at Stanford in sociology showing if I’m in a group and we’re starting to form a hierarchy and I share things, I help somebody out, I share an idea, I share a source of resources I will gain power and respect. It’s important to be bold and strong. There are studies of the great presidents who show that one of the defining determinants of enduring power is being bold, put out a really radical idea.

And finally, there is no substitute for great listening and great active empathic engagement with others. And there are neat studies by Mark Brackett at Yale, Stefan Cote, one of my collaborators who’s at the University of Toronto just showing, “Wow, those are emotionally intelligent people who are just focused on listening really gain power in most contexts of interest.”

Chris Lipp:  To summarize that – be bold, speak up, listen with empathy, listen to what’s going on. I mean, you mentioned serving the greater good, is there anything else?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, sharing, right? That’s really counter-intuitive but as Rob Miller and others, there’s this new literature ironically that’s called competitive altruism, which shows it’s really the person who shows generosity in newly forming groups who other people respect and they have the sense that this person can really advance the values of the group and advance their welfare. And then I think we can’t underestimate with all this EQ stuff, emotional intelligence stuff, as one pathway to power, a clear other pathway that Cameron Anderson has been studying is competencies, right? Show your technical competencies; show your skills within a particular domain. That matters too.

Chris Lipp:  I was at a company, a start-up, many years ago, they had two co-founders, 100 employees. And one of the co-founders, he was the CEO of the company, a 100 person company, he was your kind of typical alpha male, he would disparage people whose work he didn’t like, he is very direct, very straight. The other was a VP and he was really nice, generous, he listened. And eventually one of the dynamics I noticed is the engineers loved the CEO but the marketing and the sales guys hated the CEO but they loved the VP, the more social guy. So clearly it looks like different types of power dynamics work for different people.

Dacher Keltner:  And Chris, your observation is so way beyond the science, right? So I think that you can think about how we gain power and lead, and social scientists always reduce things in simplistic ways as there’s kind of a collaborative model, a high EQ model of empathy and respect. And then there’s a more top-down coercive model if you will of I dictate what goes on, I take people down. And those strategies are always vying for control in organizations, and they work in different contexts to different degrees.

If you’re doing a one-shot negotiation or if you’re dealing with a really nasty constituency or outside party or if you’re in the Mexican drug cartels, you want some coercive types on your side who are going to be strong and forceful. By contrast, if you’re in other parts of an organization like sales where it’s a lot more social and built on relationships you probably want the more collaborative high EQ person to be in leadership positions. So clearly they depend on context, they depend on who you’re working with, who you’re negotiating with and also the kind of sector you’re working in. When I travel down to Facebook and do consulting there internally it’s a very collaborative horizontal type of organization where the coercive types aren’t going to do too well. So it really depends on the realm you’re working in too.

Chris Lipp:  Given your work with different leaders, can you share a story about an actual situation you’ve seen this?

Dacher Keltner:  Oh, my God, I mean, one of my favorites, Chris, was I had the life defining privilege of working as a scientific consultant on the film Inside Out. And Pete Docter, the director of that film, brought me in and for five years I’d visit his team and talk to Pete and his team, a very small team of creatives that built up the film Inside Out about the science of emotion which I’ve been teaching for 25 years. And I was like as I got a sense of … I just confronted the question like how in the world does Pete get 250 people who are creative, independent, artistic types, data types, computational computer types to produce something like the scene in his prior movie Up where Carl and Elli just sort of reflect upon their life together. I don’t know if you remember that montage of sort of their falling in love and living a life together.

And I was just like, I mean, that is an incredible piece of leadership, to unite 250 different people to produce something like that. And what I quickly discovered, Chris, was Pete embodies these principles of collaborative power. He’s really respectful, he’s a spectacular listener, he is sharing and kind and really interested in giving intellectual and artistic opportunities to young people, he’s strong, he fights for the key ideas that he really cares about. And for five years I would go around Pixar and have lunch with people and meet different members of the team – animators, illustrators and the like – and to a person they’re like Pete Docter is the most amazing person to work for. And that quality that distributed throughout his network brought out their best work, and really it just brought to life all these abstract ideas I was working on in the power paradox.

Chris Lipp:  So if our listener wants to be like him, what can they do?

Dacher Keltner:  Oh, man. Well, you know what I think can do? And I wrote about this in the Harvard business review piece that got a really good response, and I’m happy to share it with you and you can post it, but there are just six or seven things you can always be trying to do in each interaction since power is part of every interaction in your life – you can be really orienting empathically to other people’s interests, you can be really cultivating respect because we know power and feeling powerful makes people less respectful, makes people almost uncivil in how they speak and act. You can be bold and take some chances, offer a really cool one of your favorite ideas at a team meeting. And then you got to watch out for the really coercive types that are coming after you. So there are a lot of concrete things to do that are a basis of enduring power.

Chris Lipp:  People often associate power with body language, so basically appearing powerful makes you more powerful, appearing not powerful makes you not powerful. But I guess the first question in that arena is, I mean, how does appearance really play a role versus your words and actions?

Dacher Keltner:  It’s so interesting because part of this is a performance, right? People who study organizations call it status moves, like do you show sort of grand generosity? “Hey, dinner’s on me, everybody?” And suddenly you gain respect of your colleagues. Or do you have witty remarks that show an emotional intelligence in a meeting. So part of it is performative, there’s no doubt. And there are these really interesting studies of Machiavellians and narcissists. And Machiavellians and narcissists, and they’re two out of the three what are called the dark triad in personality, the other one being sociopathy or sort of sociopathology. Machiavellians and narcissists are full of like seductive charm and grandiosity and overconfidence. And they kind of will take people down and they show this bluster, right? Probably reminds you of the president-elect perhaps.

And what’s really interesting is they have this performative style, studies show, that gets them power initially. People are like, “Whoa, did you see that guy? He really took that other person down and he was promising all this great stuff.” And he seemed as though he could not possibly make a mistake. And he had all this surge of confidence. But over time people catch on to narcissists and Machiavellians. And after a while, after a few interactions or a few weeks or months with them in an organization, for example, they just kind of get the feeling like, “Well, I can’t trust this person.” Or this person’s actually really only interested in their own self-interest and not the group’s functioning. And their power tends to diminish.

So yes, this is a performance. Yes, we can be tricked initially. But I think strong social systems tend to catch on to these problematic types.

Chris Lipp:  How would this show up in, I’m going to run through a common thing, let’s say you’re in a job interview how would that show up?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, it shows up really simply which is does somebody with heart convey sort of their core passions and what they really will bring to the work? And that’s the boldness that we’re talking about. Does somebody show qualities that show that they’re good at connecting to others, do they listen well, do they ask good questions, do they laugh in a contagious way, do they feel warm? And those qualities mean downstream that they’re going to be a strong team member and build alliances and do excellent collaborative work. And then there’s alongside the boldness and the warmth, with these subsidiary strategies we’ve been talking about, is just kind of basic confidence, does this person have the skill set? And this is typically what people look for – skill set to be a great president or a great coder at Facebook or a terrific illustrator at Pixar. You got to have skills.

So I think that intuitively we know that these qualities … we pick up these qualities and the mind has, the brain has big regions that are devoted to detecting them, and that’s what you look for in interviews – is that mixture of EQ and talent and skills and the ability to be a strong member of a team.

Chris Lipp:  Let’s take another common situation. What if you’re in a meeting?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, it’s so interesting, I work with a couple of groups that, studies show, by their own report that team meetings can be a little tricky for them because they’re so fast-paced and really talkative, assertive people, can dominate the floor and the like. I work with individuals in a Norwegian organization and Norwegians are notoriously collaborative and non-assertive. And I work with a lot of women in positions of leadership and women tend to be a little bit more collaborative. And when I ask these groups of 50 women like, “Do you regularly feel like you don’t get to say what you would hope to say at a team meeting?” 80% of hands shoot up. So what I tell people to do is make sure as a principal you voice your ideas, speak up. Make sure that you ask great questions. Make sure that you are doing things that allow you to informally comment on the quality of the ideas that are being developed, like you engage empathically.

There are studies that show when you’re in a team meeting and if you’re just voicing interest and laughing and sort of nodding your head in ways that affirm the ideas on the table, you will be contributing to a better product, a greater innovation. So I think there’s this whole array of things from speaking up to non-verbal engagement to building alliances and the like that are essential to your status within that team.

Chris Lipp:  That’s really good. Looking at the research in power, pleasing and facilitating the relationship is often considered a low-power behavior. How does that differ from being generous and listening?

Dacher Keltner:  Yeah, I know. Well, there can be generosity and empathic listening without purpose, right? Without boldness, without a sense that that individual has a core intention or passion about the collaboration or the work together. And what really strikes me, and it’s kind of brought up, Chris, in this conversation is the great leaders I’ve been around – a woman who’s a product manager at Facebook, some of the women that I was just with Kaiser Permanente literally influencing the health of millions of people. Pete Docter, the Dalai Lama, I’ve been in the Dalai Lama’s presence intensively for a couple of times. And they do the soft stuff we’ve been talking about – listening warmly, really showing caring about the person’s, other people’s condition. Sharing but they have boldness, and they will fight for what they believe in.

And that mixture is I think the magic ingredient, of showing the warm stuff but really knowing what you’re after. And when you don’t know that stuff and you’re not bold you will seem weak, you’ll seem like you’re supplicating and just begging. So you got to know what you’re after.

It’s interesting when historians write about Abraham Lincoln they really zero in on this quality which is that he knew he had to end slavery, the defining issue of this country’s history, but at the same time he knew it was not so simple as just declaring this boldly. He had to work collaboratively with counterparts and skeptics and extremists if you will to get that done. So it was this mixture of warmth and boldness.

Chris Lipp:  That’s really great. I mean, that gives so much insight into how it all comes together, really the listening, the empathy, but it’s in the context of this greater good in some sense is what you’re saying.

Dacher Keltner:  Yeah. And it’s so interesting, like when historians rank the legacies of the great US presidents the ones who have the great legacies they had ideas, bold ideas, that lasted, right? Not flash in the pan, manipulative notions or dramatic gestures, but bold ideas like FDR’s ideas or on the other end of the political spectrum, Ronald Reagan, about small government even though he had a large government. So they had these bold ideas and then they delivered them in ways that got alliances to pursue them and networks to pursue them.

Chris Lipp:  Let’s get to the core then of we know what the behaviors of power look like and I think to some degree maybe our listeners can act them, but what are some practices we can take to experience a sense of our own power?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, the first thing that’s so interesting is, so the first challenge is actually something I write about in the power paradox which is something that cultures have been doing universally which is cultures very often will have young people go out on what’s called a vision quest where their central task is to figure out how they’re going to make a difference in the world. And today organizational psychologists talk about that as purpose, like you may be cleaning hospital pans in a medical care setting or you may be a data analyst on a team or you may be in HR and you got to think like, “Why am I here?” And so you find your purpose. And purpose and power are very tightly intertwined.

The second thing is to engage in a collective conversation about like let’s talk about the specific context in which you really feel powerful, right? And it’s so interesting, Chris, I ask it in this open-ended way at the start of my work with different groups, and outcome exactly the stuff we’ve been talking about where people say, “I worked so hard for years to get this compensation group to include this as part of the retirement package. And it worked after years,” and it’s about advancing the greater good. Or, “I felt really powerful when I brought up these three junior colleagues to take on leadership positions, and I enabled that.” So power is about when you think about the specific context of your life of how you’re applying your purpose.

And then I think that it is this repertoire of tactics or strategies we’ve been talking about, like I’m dealing with this person, how do I cultivate empathy or respect or be strong or bold or make sure I don’t get pushed around or show kindness and share resources? So I think it’s this mixture of the deep existential work of like what’s my purpose. Secondly is where in my daily life at work and in my family, where is it playing out? Am I getting in power struggles with my teenagers at the dinner table? Let’s figure that out. And third is these strategies or tactics we’ve been talking about.

Chris Lipp:  Powerless, I think powerlessness and the cost to our self sometimes we associate it with the external circumstances, and you’ve given some tools to really counter that. I’m just curious, how much of power and powerlessness is a factor of our thinking versus our external situation?

Dacher Keltner:  I think it’s a nuanced answer, and what we know, so the powerlessness question of poverty and being treated in a problematic way by a school system or a criminal justice system, that’s been well documented, that a lot of that is the context. And if you are born in the worst, like in the neighborhood I grew up around where you just don’t have a shot with schools and you’re just facing a tricky system, an adversarial system, probably 70% is in your context and it’s you got to really work hard to use that 30% of your mindset and your social practices to rise to a better position. And this is a claim based on data I could bore you with.

And then if you’re born into a middle class setting or upper middle class and you’re rising and you’re working in organizations you and I connect to, a lot of it is your mindset and it’s how you handle stress and how you handle complex colleagues and how you speak up and how you stay close to ethical principles as you rise. So a lot is in your choice.

Chris Lipp:  Well, let’s talk about situations like dealing with colleagues because I have a colleague whose boss is extremely demanding her. He literally calls her and texts her all the time, he doesn’t respect her work boundaries or her personal boundaries, and so she’s kind of stuck in this very low power position of always reacting to him. What advice would you give her?

Dacher Keltner:  So it’s funny, for 20 years I’ve been teaching good power and then people are always like but I got this person in my organization who’s derailing me. And regrettably studies show men are more likely to perpetrate problematic behavior and they’re more likely to direct it to women, so your example is illustrative. And really there are nice strategies that have been thought through and worked out by people like Bob Sutton down at Stanford who has his book the no asshole rule, how do you deal with these people? Forgive the swearing. And it boils down to some simple things like take the high road, if you got a bully don’t fight back because that’s what they love, sort of stay close to civility and the protocols of your organization. Get allies, right?

Call out the behavior. Sutton in his writings has like here are 12 behaviors that are really unacceptable, things like interrupting and bullying and shaming and snubbing are unacceptable in today’s organizations. Make it a strong culture where you call out these kinds of behaviors. And then if calling it out and taking the high road and getting your allies, if that doesn’t work then sadly it’s time to think about moving on because some of these people are incorrigible and will take organizations down.

Chris Lipp:  And I mean, the worst case scenario that you have to leave your job. So I guess that would be the same thing, I had this question here I wanted to ask you which is how do you respond or counter someone’s overt power gestures?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, one of the things … I think there are a couple really useful things about the power paradox and then the teaching that I’ve been doing which is first of all it teaches you how to be aware of it, right? What are the things that dominators do? They’re going to interrupt you, they’re going to bully your ideas, they may snub you at a meeting, they may hold their bodies with their arms behind their heads and kick their feet up on your table. There are a lot of things that coercive, domineering types do. And awareness really helps. There’s a rich literature on how powerful it is to be aware of stress sources of stress in your environment. When I’m being dominated I’m like, “Oh, here we go. Here come the strategies coming at me.” And I’m aware.

And then the second thing, I think this is where the performative side to power is really important, which is I teach people like here’s what you can do non-verbally, like fold your arms and close your arms and move back and tell them that their idea is really condescending and so forth. So put it on record and encounter with your own peaceful strength. And those are a couple of sort of useful in the moment strategies. And then we get back to like if you’re countering somebody’s really problematic power moves, you turn to allies and build up a network where people are aware of these problematic behaviors.

Chris Lipp:  Two more questions, first is I remember reading about, and this might have been body language research, that when a person takes a high power position and body position it’s they’re more comfortable with the interaction, both people are more comfortable with the interaction when one takes a low power and one takes a high power. If they both take high power, they’re uncomfortable; if they both take low power they’re uncomfortable. So when is it important to play high power versus low power? When’s it okay to play low power?

Dacher Keltner:  Well, there are a lot of context, right? So I think what you’re referring to is work by Lara Tedens at Stanford that we tend to feel comfortable in these more hierarchical dynamics. And but you can ask like … and Cameron Anderson has been doing really cool work showing if you get groups of people together and all they do is do their power moves vis-a-vis each other, particularly men, they end up doing worse work together because they’re just getting into these escalating status moves and power dynamics.

So I think it’s okay to show power (a), to return your last question, when you’re at the critical moment of like this is the most important idea I have, period, this is what I should get venture capital for, this is why my paper should be published, this is why you should marry me – you need conviction and power behind that non-verbally; (b) there are moments, and it’s interesting, for 20 years this is work beginning at Stanford’s business school now at Berkeley I’ve been analyzing the non-verbal behaviors of executives negotiating, and there are certain times in negotiations, negotiation is this complicated multi-phase interaction where you really want to show power and strength, you want to show it when you’re expressing your position, like what you need in a negotiation. That actually benefits both sides.

You want to show it, if you get pushback and if somebody’s trying to manipulate you, it’s good to show a little power in return. So I think that those are three examples of where it’s good to show power, is when you’re really expressing your core interests or convictions, when you’re kind of within more specific negotiations stating your position, and then when someone’s trying to manipulate you it’s good to just be tough and show some resilience.

Chris Lipp:  Dacher, that’s fantastic. Actually that’s a fantastic note to end this on because I think that’s really useful advice for everybody listening. Thank you so much for taking time today to answer all these questions.

Dacher Keltner:  These have been amazing questions, Chris. Thank you.