The Psychology of Power & Influence
How to use power more effectively in your business.
Welcome to Grit & Growth’s masterclass on power, featuring Deborah Gruenfeld, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of organizational behavior. From the body language of power to the authority vs. authenticity debate, Gruenfeld provides insights on how and when to use your power to gain the trust and respect of others.
Professor Gruenfeld is a psychologist by training and she’s been researching and teaching about the psychology of power and powerlessness for decades. She has a deep understanding of why this invisible force can have such a profound social and business impact. There are plenty of myths and misconceptions about power, starting with the fact that most people believe that only other people have power and that power corrupts. Gruenfeld says the research disproves this idea, explaining, “It’s having power while feeling powerless that leads people to behave badly.”
So, how do people in positions of power use it as a force for good? If you want to have a positive impact on others and on your organization, Gruenfeld suggests there’s no advantage career-wise to being a jerk. Instead, she recommends “behaving in a way that leads others to trust you more.”
Top Five Masterclass Takeaways
- Your body language can communicate power… or powerlessness. Gruenfeld advises entrepreneurs to imagine putting on a headdress or crown before you walk in a room full of strangers. The stillness and physical expansiveness you convey will provide nonverbal cues that you’re comfortable and in charge.
- Sometimes it’s better to lead with deference than dominance. While dominance tends to look more authoritative, deferential behaviors are more approachable, show respect for others, and help build relationships.
- Effective leaders need to balance authority and approachability. You need to be equally capable of behaving in a way that commands respect and shows respect to others because people will need different things from you in different situations.
- Leaders need to practice types of power that may not come naturally. More than likely, you’ll be more comfortable with either an authoritative or approachable style. Use this as an opportunity for growth so you can be the leader whom others need you to be.
- Often the best way to use your power is to empower others. While not intuitive for most leaders, showing vulnerability and asking for help can be highly motivating for teams.
Listen to Gruenfeld’s insights, advice, and strategies for how entrepreneurs can use power more effectively as you manage growing teams, pitch investors, and negotiate deals.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
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Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: When we lead with dominance, it tends to look more authoritative. And when we lead with something more deferential that involves showing respect to others, that’s more approachable. It invites others to engage with us more.
Darius Teter: Power: it’s that invisible force that governs our world. Some want it, some warn against it, but what is it exactly? And how do you use power for good?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the big myths, I think, is that dominance is always better, for example, than being deferential. And I would suggest that’s not true at all. It’s very, very useful to show up in a way that’s disarming as a way of building relationships and making things work.
Darius Teter: Welcome to the second season of Grit & Growth from Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and South Asia’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty on how to tackle challenges and grow your business. Today, we’re going to tackle that mysterious force that can determine your success as a leader and an entrepreneur. I’m talking about power.
Entrepreneurs are constantly faced with questions of power as they manage their growing teams, pitch to investors, and negotiate crucial deals for their growth. Even if they don’t use the term power or think about power explicitly, how much power do you actually have in any given situation and how would you know, when should you use it, and when should you yield? To help us think through those questions, I spoke with Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld, who has been researching and teaching about power for decades.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: My name is Deborah Gruenfeld. I’m a faculty member in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and I teach in the organizational behavior group.
Darius Teter: And I understand you’re a psychologist by training?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: I am a psychologist by training. I study the psychology of power and powerlessness. Power is a topic that’s of interest to people in all kinds of organizations. It’s interesting to me psychologically, but it’s sort of the central force in most social and business contexts. Business students are very interested in the topic as well. Power’s defined as a person’s capacity to get others to do what they want them to despite resistance.
Darius Teter: So it’s a kind of leverage?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Leverage is how it’s normally defined, yes.
Darius Teter: Uh-huh.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: I should make a distinction for you. What I just described for you is a definition of social power. And often I think of the type of power that I teach about mostly as being related to personal power. So let me just make that distinction for you quickly. Social power comes from things like having relationships in which others need you more than you need them, so that gives you leverage.
Having good alternatives to a current relationship is also a source of leverage in that way. Personal power tends to come from the way you behave and your impact on other people, independent of your ability to force them to do things.
Darius Teter: I just want to repeat what Deborah said because I think it’s a really instructive framework. She distinguishes two types of power: social power, which lets you influence others to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, and personal power, which allows you to control your own outcomes independent of others. I asked Deborah what misconceptions she sees about power.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: I think the biggest one is that most people tend to think of power as something that only other people have. So we tend to think of powerful people as famous people, wealthy people, the president of the United States, or the head of some other government. But those of us who study power understand that every relationship has power in it. So to the extent that in our relationships we need one another in order to accomplish our goals, we have the ability to influence one another to do things that we care about because we want the relationship to be successful and we need one another.
Most of us feel like we have less power than we do. And so we tend to feel powerless often when we’re not. It’s sort of independent of how much power people have. One of the really interesting things that I found working in a business school is that when I first started talking about power to audiences, I thought it was kind of like a niche topic, that maybe there’d be some other women who were interested in the challenge of how to overcome feeling powerless.
But one of the things I’ve learned is that it’s really a challenge for everyone and even C-suite level executives are very interested in the challenge of trying to get comfortable with their own authority and their own authoritativeness. It’s a kind of a challenge that really applies to everyone and never seems to go away.
Darius Teter: To many of us, power is portrayed as something to be wary of. But according to Dr. Gruenfeld, that’s not the whole story.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the really interesting things that we found in our research is that there’s this idea that power corrupts, so power leads to bad behavior almost by definition. What we find actually is that it’s really having power while feeling powerless that leads people to behave badly. It leads people to want to do things that are designed to make themselves feel more powerful as opposed to doing things in ways that are best for the organization, best for the team, or best for the people who report to them.
So that’s just to give you one example. For those of us who have insecurities about how important we are, how influential we are, whether other people respect us, those insecurities really never go away. But as you move up in your career, what you find is you just find yourself on a bigger stage in which to act those things out. But the psychological sources of inferiority are very, very common and very hard to overcome.
I think one of the biggest challenges for people moving into positions of power is changing gears from thinking about themselves as having needs and wanting to feel powerful themselves, to recognizing that with great power comes great responsibility. And what they need to do is shift gears toward thinking about what other people need from them and to put other people’s needs first.
Darius Teter: It’s important to reconceptualize power in this way because Dr. Gruenfeld’s research shows us that power changes people.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Much of my work has really looked at how finding yourself in a powerful position is transformative in ways that often happen outside of our consciousness. We’re often unaware that we’re being transformed by power. But what our research shows is that people tend to become more focused on their own goals, a little more impulsive and less sensitive to social norms when in positions of power.
Darius Teter: I’m interested in pursuing that further because I think about our audience of entrepreneurs who might start out with just an idea, one or two members on a team, they find some success. All of a sudden they go from being the founder who’s almost a lone wolf to actually having a team, having investors, having a complex group of stakeholders, maybe having a board. And what does that do to them, to their psychology?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: I’ve spoken with a lot of these people, so I have a bit of a window onto that. I think one of the most interesting transitions to observe — and it’s something that a lot of us experience in our careers — is just that moment of recognizing that the skills and tactics and techniques that were successful for you to get you here are not the same ones that you need to get to where you’re going next.
So a lot of times, what new company founders will find, for example, is that they need to learn to behave in a way that’s more authoritative in order for other people to feel secure in their presence with them in a leadership role. So it’s very much a challenge for people because often these individuals don’t feel any different from one day to the next, going from being a technology geek in a hoodie to being someone who has hundreds of millions of dollars invested in them.
They feel like exactly the same person, but in order for other people to get what they need in order to be successful, they have to learn how to show up in a way that conveys authority and comfort with power, and makes others feel more secure in their presence, and it doesn’t come naturally.
Darius Teter: Leaders often react to these changing circumstances by pursuing authenticity, which surprisingly, at least to me, turns out to not always be the right answer. There’s a difference between being authentic and being who you need to be.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah.
Darius Teter: Can you say a bit more about that?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Sure. I mean, it’s such an interesting topic, especially when it comes to power. So the concern that I have is that in the research that I’ve done, what happens to people when we put them in positions of power and they’re authentic is that they act very impulsively on their own needs and desires without consideration for the impact of their behavior on anyone else. When people are concerned with authenticity I think what they’re concerned about is feeling like themselves and feeling like they’re not being false. What I think is much more important in a position of power is to feel like you can do whatever is necessary in order for other people to get what they need from you. To me, that’s what it means to act responsibly in a position of power.
So often it’s not authentic. It’s often doing something you could never have imagined yourself doing, but that is necessary in order for the rest of the team to feel like they’re safe, they know their direction, that you’ve got both hands on the steering wheel when the world is turned upside down. There’s interesting research on authenticity now too coming out that shows that often when we behave in ways that feel authentic, they don’t read authentic.
Darius Teter: That’s fascinating. Can you give me an example?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: So an example would be when someone presents as very anxious or hesitant or uncertain about themselves, like feeling very self-conscious, for example. That may feel very true. It also makes others feel like they’re watching someone who’s covering because they’re not getting a pure expression of something. That’s one of the biggest surprises I had when I started to think about power from the perspective of acting, what actors do, which is that what I learned is that whether you’re doing something you’ve never done before or not is not that important. What’s important is your commitment to what you’re doing.
And if you can find a way to genuinely commit to behaving in a way that’s extremely confident even if you don’t feel confident, people will think you’re confident and it will have the effect on them that you wanted to have. But if you don’t feel confident and then you try to behave as though you’re confident, it reads like it’s not true.
Darius Teter: So if we accept that power is at least partially something we have to perform, I wonder, what tools do we have at our disposal? Let’s talk a little bit about the body language of power. What is that?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the really interesting things about power when you start to look at it carefully is that humans and all other animals spend a lot of time in social hierarchies, even more than we think we do. So we expect to see hierarchies in power in business organizations. We don’t think about hierarchies in power in our families, but they are there, too. What this means is that in pretty much every social context, people tend to form hierarchies very quickly, whether it’s needed or not to accomplish the task. And what this means is that we are negotiating for power and status all the time without realizing it in the same way that we know animals do.
And so there are these very well-learned routines of behavior. They’re referred to often as dominance and submission or dominance and deference that are ways of behaving physically that signal to others whether we’re prepared to fight with them or whether we are prepared to back off, and whether they should be afraid of us or not. It’s really just nonverbal expressions or displays of dominance on the one hand and submission on the other that really make up a large part of what the body language of power looks like. It’s how we communicate with one another about who ranks where and whether we’re in agreement about that or not.
Darius Teter: So I walk into a room full of strangers. I have to convince them of something. Maybe I’m an entrepreneur and I’m trying to convince a group of investors that my big idea is great. What are they noticing when I walk in the room?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the suggestions that I make to a lot of entrepreneurs in these situations is, before going into a room like that, to imagine putting on a headdress. So we’ll have a kind of a code, like, “Don’t forget to put on your headdress.” And basically what this means is that — you can do this right now — if you imagine that you’re putting, like, a heavy crown or like a headdress that would be worn by a Las Vegas showgirl or a chef’s hat or whatever it is. If you can imagine putting an elaborate headdress on your head, what you’ll notice is that it changes how you hold your body.
So if you’ve got something heavy on your head, heavy and tall on your head, you have to keep your head still. You have to keep your neck and spine straight up and down, and you have to move slowly and carefully without a lot of extraneous motion. That’s one of the easiest things. So we know that stillness — as opposed to a lot of fleeting and jerky movements — communicates dominance and power, and also social comfort, and also physical expansiveness.
One of the things we know about dominance, one of the most reliable displays of dominance is physical expansiveness. People will look at how quickly you move, how quickly you speak, whether your energy is focused as opposed to kind of all over the place, which suggests clarity of mind, clarity of purpose, clarity of direction, and confidence, as opposed to hesitation and uncertainty. These are all things that give people a sense of security that you’re comfortable in charge.
Darius Teter: In a previous episode of Grit & Growth, we featured communications expert Matt Abrahams and he used the terms high-context and low-context cultures. In a high-context culture, the relationships, the environment, and the situation are really important in how we interact with other people. And since we exercise power through verbal and nonverbal communication, it’s not surprising that context matters here as well.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: It’s definitely the case that there are cultures in which hierarchies are really sacred in a way that they’re not in Western cultures and the United States. And in those cultures what ends up happening, I think, what you witnessed, is that there are very well-learned and elaborate ways of displaying deference to make sure that you never accidentally offend someone who’s above you in the hierarchy by showing that you don’t know your place. What I think it conveys — that I think is really interesting and not intuitive to people who think about power as kind of a dark, evil force — is that hierarchies and agreement about hierarchies is a huge part of how we cooperate and avoid fighting with one another.
So this is why you see it in the animal world as well. When we agree that one of us ranks higher and the other ranks lower, we don’t have to fight about it. We can just get down to business and accomplish the task at hand. What you see more in the West, and in groups where hierarchies haven’t been established, is people fight for position, they fight for status and power.
I think we’ve all been in rooms where that’s happening and it absorbs a huge amount of energy and resources that in the animal kingdom you think of it as like that energy should be going toward the tasks that are necessary for survival. So those very ritualized displays are helpful in terms of people avoiding making mistakes that could derail cooperation in groups.
Darius Teter: If you’re unsure where you stand in a hierarchy, Deborah has a strategy for safely finding your place.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: What’s the right way to approach a situation where you don’t know the status hierarchy or it hasn’t been worked out yet, or you’re meeting someone for the first time? It’s much safer to slightly underestimate your rank, to behave in a way that’s slightly more deferential than necessary, than it is to behave in a way that’s more dominant than you have permission for. It’s very threatening to the people in charge to have someone show up in a way that suggests they can’t read the room and they don’t understand that there’s a status hierarchy.
What we often tell people is that the safest strategy and probably the most effective strategy is to take cues off the other person. So if the other person is showing up in a very dominant way, it gives you permission to be dominant and to try to match what they’re doing, but to stay just slightly under, just slightly more deferential, so that you’re showing up authoritatively enough to be taken seriously, but you’re not threatening to them. Pay attention to what other people are doing, that’ll give you a sense for what’s normative, what looks appropriate. Try to match, but stay just slightly under.
Darius Teter: Another framework that Deborah uses to think about power considers how leaders are evaluated by others. Are they seen as approachable or authoritative?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: In my mind, there are really two dimensions on which we’re always being evaluated. One has to do with whether we’re perceived as strong and authoritative, or dominant. And the other has to do with whether we’re perceived as someone who’s willing to put other people’s interests first. And when we lead with dominance, it tends to look more authoritative. And when we lead with something more deferential that involves showing respect to others, that’s more approachable. It invites others to engage with us more.
One of the big myths, I think, is that dominance is always better, for example, than being deferential. And I would suggest that’s not true at all. It’s very, very useful to show up in a way that’s disarming as a way of building relationships and making things work.
Darius Teter: This spectrum of authoritative to approachable presence can also be helpful for people who aren’t on top of the social hierarchy.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Independent of how much power you have, we make choices all the time about whether to advertise our advantages and our privileges and our leverage, or to camouflage those things. So, yes, sometimes we refer to it as playing power up and playing it down. From the point of view of someone who’s in a subordinate role, I think the most important thing is that you reassure people who rank higher than you do that you respect their rank.
To me, the first step toward establishing rapport and a trusting relationship with a superior is letting them know that you accept that their rank is higher than yours. Once you’ve established that respect and that basis of trust, it opens up all kinds of opportunities. You can present very assertively. You can disagree with your boss. You can —
Darius Teter: Because you’ve established that you’re not challenging them.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s exactly right.
Darius Teter: Now you’re offering —
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s right.
Darius Teter: You’re showing confidence in your idea, your proposal, your strategy.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s right. And you’ve showed that you’re doing it because you’re on their side, which is what I think is necessary in order for a higher ranking person to take more assertive behavior or challenges from a subordinate — is to be able to trust that that person has the superior’s interests in mind.
Darius Teter: I think it’s important to note that Dr. Gruenfeld doesn’t see authoritative or approachable styles as wrong or right. But, rather, an effective leader needs to blend both depending on the situation.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: There are many people who would say even as a high-power person you should always lead with approachability as a way of letting other people know that although you don’t have to, you’re capable of putting their interests first. One of the things we know from research is that we don’t tend to give high-power people the benefit of the doubt on being caring of others.
We tend to stereotype high-power others as being very self-interested. So some people would say the most important thing for a high-power person is to reassure others that they’re capable of putting others’ interests first.
Darius Teter: They’re not a complete megalomaniac.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: That’s right. And in many cases, I think that that’s true. There is also research that shows, however, the opposite, which is that specifically under situations — crisis conditions — where there’s a lot of helplessness and uncertainty, people tend to crave authoritarian or authoritative leadership. The study that I’m referring to — really interesting — looked at the relationship between economic conditions around the world and people’s preferences for authoritative versus more deferential-style political leaders, but also more authoritative and respect-oriented leaders in business.
And what they found is that the worse economic conditions were, the more economic uncertainty people were dealing with, the greater their preference for strong, dominant, authoritative leaders. And I think in part it’s because we don’t like dominance when it’s directed toward us. We do like dominance when we think people will use it to protect us, to resolve uncertainty. It gives us a sense of security to know that someone is willing to take the risk to fight for what’s important to us. And so we’re often more drawn to authoritative leaders than you might think because they make us feel secure.
Darius Teter: We use the term — which is not our term, it’s from GSB — post-heroic leadership, which is, “I need a team to solve adaptive challenges.” How do you square that with the need to actually be visibly in charge in a crisis? Because crises are also adaptive challenges, right?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Yes. How do you make the choice between showing up authoritative, making decisions and telling people what to do, versus asking for your team to help you solve the problem or even handing it off?
Darius Teter: In some ways the pandemic created a natural, if deeply unfortunate, experiment that allows us to compare and contrast these leadership styles across countries.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: One of the things that’s very interesting is if you look at the prime minister of New Zealand. She was a great example of balancing these two goals and being able to use both of them. So I think in a situation like this, what’s ideal is to have really empowered a set of advisers and experts to advise you and tell you what they think you should do, to couple that with making the decision on your own and publicly taking accountability for the consequences of that decision. So it’s sort of separating out the being open to the input, but then as the leader being the person who owns responsibility for the outcome.
The prime minister of New Zealand actually has videos on YouTube that show her during the pandemic sitting at a kitchen table in jeans and a T-shirt with her two chief science advisers, obviously taking input from them as though they’re equals or more expert than she is. But then when she decides how she’s going to handle the lockdown, she shows up in a red jacket in front of a microphone with all of her ministers behind her. And it’s that combination of things, I think, that can be really, really useful, which is being willing to take ownership of the decisions while at the same time understanding that you’ll probably be better off if you take advice from others.
Darius Teter: Sometimes the best way to use your power is simply to empower others.
It’s not intuitive at all for a person in a leadership role who’s dealing with an adaptive challenge and doesn’t know how to approach it to go to your team and say, “I’m lost. Help me figure this out.” I mean, it just doesn’t fit with how we think a leader is supposed to behave. But of course, those are the opportunities where you really engage your team. And often they know things that you don’t know and can help you solve the problems. It’s just we get these ideas in our head about what we’re supposed to look like in a position of power. And we think we’re supposed to always be decisive and always know the answers.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: And I think the other hidden benefit to that — being willing to show up lost in a leadership role or vulnerable, let’s say — is that your team feels like they’ve helped you solve a problem that you couldn’t solve yourself. It’s hugely motivating. So the benefits to you, they’re not concerned about whether you knew the answer or didn’t know the answer. They just feel really good about themselves that they were able to make a difference in your life. And I think that people in leadership roles and positions of power don’t recognize the loyalty and commitment that they can get from their team, by allowing them the opportunity to help them.
When you think about the logic of empowering other people and what research tells us about it, is that it is much better for motivating people to give them more control over their work and over their own decisions and how they do things. So the more people feel in control of their outcomes, the more motivating that is. And at the same time, there are situations in which you benefit as a leader by allowing other people to help you. So there is that kind of sweet spot and I set up a distinction that is sometimes blurred in practice, where your ideal situation is where you’ve made a decision to help others succeed and that enables your success as well.
The way I like to think of it is that when you allow someone to help you as a person in a position of power who is often difficult to connect with, those people get in your corner. And it’s one thing to want to be respected and admired and obeyed. And it’s another to know that you have people in your corner who will be there for you if you fall off the pedestal, which happens.
So it’s loyalty, respect, and admiration. It’s sort of like an interesting kind of reciprocity that if the person in charge is willing to take a personal risk in order to help you succeed, you want to reciprocate by taking personal risks to help them succeed.
Darius Teter: For me, a compelling take-away from Dr. Gruenfeld’s work is that power shouldn’t be a goal in itself, but a means to an end.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: People often ask me, “How should I be trying to show up as a person in a position of power?” And what I often tell them is that they should be worried. They should be thinking about whether other people trust them or not. And there are two aspects to trust. One has to do with whether you’re presenting in a way that leads other people to think you’re capable or competent. That’s more using the authoritative set of behaviors. And the other has to do with whether others feel respected by you. And that has to do with the more approachable, deferential types of behaviors.
So this idea of recognizing that to be successful you need to be equally capable of behaving in a way that commands respect and also being capable of showing respect to others as a way of being maximally effective … And most of us are naturally better at one of those than the other. People can reflect on their own strengths and recognize where the opportunities for growth are.
Darius Teter: But the underlying goal is trust?
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Yes. That’s how I think about it. You can think of it as the underlying goal is to get as much power as you can, maximize your leverage over other people, and have the upper hand in every situation. I’m not convinced that’s a helpful strategy. I think there’s a lot of research —
Darius Teter: These people are downers.
Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld: Yeah, that’s right. They are. And I think there’s a lot of research coming out now showing that there is no advantage career-wise to being a jerk. It’s more useful from my point of view as a person in a position of power who wants to have a positive impact on others and on the organizations that they work in to think about behaving in a way that leads others to trust you more, which often has the effect of making you more successful too, but it benefits others as well.
Darius Teter: Dr. Gruenfeld’s work offers fascinating insights into how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. If you’re in a position of power, remember that both approachable and authoritative styles have their place. Sometimes we may be more comfortable with one style over the other, but leaders need to practice types of power that may not come naturally. For me, one of the most surprising research findings is that being true to yourself may not be as important as being the leader that others need you to be, especially in crisis. And finally, no matter how you display it, power should be used in the service of trust and making life better for those around you.
I’d like to thank Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld for coming on the podcast. She is as approachable as she is authoritative. And as a reminder, you can learn from Deborah’s expertise firsthand and in person at the Executive Program in Women’s Leadership, a one-week intensive course, which takes place at Stanford from May 1 to 6. To learn more about the program, visit the link in our show notes.
This has been Grit & Growth with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you like this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible. To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast.
Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller and Erika Amoako-Agyei researched and developed content for this episode. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves, with writing and production from Andrew Ganem and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.
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