The Dangers of Power

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The Dangers of Power

One scholar shows how you can gain more power, and why you should be leery.
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Do you know how to manage your power? | Reuters/Mike Segar

If life focuses on the pursuit of happiness, work focuses on the pursuit of power. We angle for those promotions, negotiate for raises, or eye the corner office.

But success extends beyond pursuing power — we must also learn how to manage it, says Stanford GSB professor Brian Lowery.

“You have to be careful with power,” he says. “Think of it as fire. It’s useful, but it’s also dangerous.”

As part of a Stanford Executive Program course, he describes different sources of power, simple ways people can obtain more of it, and the fallbacks of mismanaging that power.

Sources of Power

Society naturally orders into hierarchy, Lowery says. Some is pre-established: We know from a business organizational chart who’s in charge. But hierarchy also develops quickly among complete strangers. How does one person in a group of strangers influence others? Lowery cites six sources of power.

  • Reward: We give people what they want.
  • Coercion: We use fear to get people to do what we want them to do.
  • Information: We earn power when we know something others don’t.
  • Legitimate: In formal legitimate power, we have power because we’re the CEO, for example, and our subordinates do what we tell them to do. For informal, consider how children have power over their parents because responsible parents must feed and take care of them.
  • Expert: If we are the only engineer in a new organization, for example, we wield a lot of power.
  • Referent: We gain power through fame, status, and charisma — people like us and want to follow us.

Reward and coercion are sometimes the least efficient, Lowery notes. Law enforcers coerce people by threatening jail, but they can only enforce that power through surveillance. That can be time-consuming and costly. And reward can backfire if goals aren’t aligned. If you offer more money to an engineer to encourage her to code faster, for example, you may get more code, but it may be worse quality. Her goal — to make more money — conflicts with your goal — to have more high-quality code.

Increasing Your Power

An easy way to increase the likelihood that people will perceive you as powerful is through dominance moves:

Look large. When someone seems large or imposing, they seem more powerful. Take up more physical space.

  • Gaze directly at others, especially while talking. Avoid tilting your head.
  • Use strong hand gestures.
  • Furrow your brows.
  • Interrupt others.
  • When something goes wrong, react with anger rather than sadness. Anger is seen as the more powerful emotion of the two.
  • Speak loudly.
  • Reduce interpersonal distance. Walking into someone’s personal space is considered a high-power move.
  • Physically connect with lower-powered people in an appropriate way. Asymmetrical contact — the CEO patting you on the back, for instance — seems friendly and inviting, as well as powerful. This doesn’t work in reverse, however.

Managing Power

Power doesn’t always have a positive effect, Lowery says.

On the one hand, the powerful feel action-oriented, are less inhibited, and have heightened senses of optimism and control. But they’re also more likely to see people as tools and lack perspective outside their own.

You have to be careful with power. Think of it as fire. It’s useful, but it’s also dangerous.
Brian Lowery

“When you put these together, you can get inappropriate behaviors as a function of power,” he says. The powerful might rely on their own sense of morality in a decision, but if they’re already less inhibited and more inclined to think optimistically, they can run the risk of doing something illegal or dangerous, hurt negotiations, or harm their reputations.

“What I would strongly suggest is, as your power grows, you have people to help you check your own behavior,” Lowery says. “Don’t rely on yourself as a good person to check your behavior because you could end up missing what’s going on.”

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