Four Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Own Power at Work

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jeffrey Pfeffer for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To read the complete article, check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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My recently published book, Power, asks why some people have it and others don’t. That’s the question I am most often asked. Naturally people should want power –it can be monetized, it helps you get things done, and having power leads to a longer life.

When the Clintons left the White House, they had debts from the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky imbroglios, but a few years later they had translated their power, fame, and connections into more than $100 million in earnings from books, speeches, and investment opportunities.  UC San Francisco’s Dr. Laura Esserman

is running projects to cut the cycle time for learning about the effectiveness of breast cancer therapies, but doing so requires her building influence to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. And research by Sir Michael Marmot and others shows that the degree of job control one has positively predicts cardiac health and longevity.

The barriers to obtaining power aren’t so much competitors or external circumstances, but ourselves. If you really want power, you need to be willing to make the tradeoffs required and then get out of your own way. Some of the most important reasons people don’t seek power are:

[Here are the first two of four. To read the complete article, please click here.]

1. The effort required. I don’t know of any powerful people who don’t work a lot. Esserman sleeps little and so does Rudy Crew, the former school superintendent in New York and Miami-Dade County who was named the best school superintendent in the U.S. in the spring of 2008. CEOs travel constantly and are always “onstage,” working and thinking. Great results require enormous energy and effort. Some people think they want power, but aren’t willing to devote the time. As marketing guru Keith Ferrazzi told my class, “you have to work really, really hard. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but don’t count on it.” Studies of genius in every field ranging from art to science to athletics show that while individual talent matters, it is practice and coaching – effort — that is the key to success. Why would attaining power be any different?

2. The time spent on strategic relationships. Most people, naturally enough, want to spend their time with friends, family, and close work associates. The problem is that people who are closest to you are also more likely to be close to each other and to have the same information and contacts as you do. In other words, they can provide you mostly redundant information and contacts. That’s why network research consistently shows the importance of weak ties — people whom you don’t know particularly well but who enable you to access different information and social networks.

I saw someone with no scientific background or preexisting ties build an influential network and then get a job in biotechnology by assiduously reaching out to people he did not know for information and advice, and then thanking them and connecting them to each other. But doing this requires getting out of our comfort zone and our habit of associating mostly with those we already know. And it requires being strategic — in this person’s case, about whom he needed to meet and how he was going to meet them. Many people don’t want to interact with so many strangers and want their social relationships to be more “natural” rather than strategic, so they forego the opportunity to build power.

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The good news about these self-imposed barriers to obtaining power is that they are completely under our control. Although people can not necessarily be as powerful as they would ever want to be, they can often get farther than they thought. You just need to understand organizational dynamics and be willing to make the necessary trade-offs.

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Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. He has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, evidence-based management, and The “knowing-doing gap.” He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human capital software companies as well as other public and nonprofit boards.

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