It’s not just women or Asian Americans who sometimes have trouble doing things such as advocating for themselves and their accomplishments, negotiating for salary and job responsibilities rather than just accepting what employers offer, networking, and not obsessively worrying about being liked — all things that bring increased power. Many people are uncomfortable with power and the behaviors required to obtain it. That’s a big problem, because research shows that power skills and behaviors matter for career success.
Florida State professor Gerald Ferris and colleagues have carefully developed and validated a political skills inventory (available at www.jeffreypfeffer.com with Ferris’ permission) that people can use to assess themselves (or better yet, have others assess them) on a set of political skills that include networking ability, social astuteness, apparent sincerity, and interpersonal influence. More importantly, Ferris and others have conducted numerous studies over the years that demonstrate the important relationship between political skill and career success and also political skill and group performance.
Contrary to what you may think, good job performance is not going to be enough to rocket your career ahead. After all, the numerous studies that show salary and promotions are affected by things such as race and gender, educational credentials, and years of experience — none of which are dimensions of job performance — make the point that the world is not always a just and fair place and it takes more than doing a good job to be successful.
In my Paths to Power class and my book Power: Why Some People Have It — and Others Don’t, I encourage people to take actions that are likely to increase their power and, as a consequence, their careers:
Spend more time building social relationships. Figure out who in your company, industry, and in even more distant and diverse environments might be helpful in your career. Make a list of those people and prioritize it. Then figure out a way to meet those people, ranging from “cold” emails to facilitated introductions to finding common organizations (including nonprofits) where you might connect. Take on small but important tasks that can put you at the center of communication networks. Ascertain which people or groups might benefit from being connected — and connect them (the technical term for this is filling structural holes, and Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago makes available network diagnostic tools). And most importantly, recognize that weak ties are more valuable for job performance and careers than stronger relationships. That’s because weak ties provide you nonredundant information, while the people to whom you are most strongly tied, close friends and colleagues, probably know approximately the same things and the same people as you do. Therefore, they do not add as much additional value.
Build Personal Qualities
Energy, the ability to tolerate conflict, the capacity to see others’ points of view and interests, resilience, and ambition, among others, are qualities that produce power. To accomplish this journey of personal development and growth, find a coach, a peer, or create a small “personal board of directors” of 3 to 5 individuals who are not likely to be competitive with you to provide you advice and counsel — and hold you accountable — on your self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses and your plans to build the qualities that you need more of.
Learn How to Act and Speak with Power
Body language is important, because we form impressions of others quickly and then subsequently assimilate information based on these first impressions. Use emotion-producing, vivid language and stories to convey your message. Use forceful, powerful gestures. Speak loudly and don’t raise your voice at the end of statements, implying a question rather than an assertion. To build your skills, get an acting, voice, or language coach if you need help, and find situations where you can practice.
Understand and then act on the insight that particularly if you are an underdog, breaking the rules — which are, after all, mostly set by those in power — is essential to winning. This idea was explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath.” Moreover, since the powerful have the discretion to not conform to social conventions, breaking the rules can signal — and thereby create — power.
People often seem to believe that political skill is something one has as part of their personality — like the master politician, the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, so beautifully described in the set of biographical books by Robert Caro — or not. But that is not true. Without for a moment denying the existence of individual differences, political skill, like virtually all skills, can be improved through practice and coaching. So don’t accept your current set of strengths and weaknesses, or for that matter, your current tastes and preferences, as fixed and enduring.
Building power and influence skills is not about changing who you are or becoming someone else. It is about adding a set of activities and skills to your repertoire to become more effective and successful. So stop making excuses and get on with it.