No more Mr. Nice Guy
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explores the personal qualities that help people achieve power — and the issues surrounding that quest
"Power: Why some people have it and others don't," by Jeffrey Pfeffer; HarperBusiness, New York; 273 pp.; $27.99
As a superintendent, Rudy Crew was a rock star. Taking the helm of the troubled, $4.5 billion Miami-Dade County school district in 2004, Crew improved student academic performance and built new classrooms to ease overcrowding. In spring 2008, he was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
And yet, in September 2008, Crew found himself voted out by a fractious school board that was more interested in the district's racial issues than improving the school performance.
Crew learned the hard way that doing a great job does not equal job security. What counts instead is power.
That's Stanford University business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's take on Crew's fall from grace, detailed in Pfeffer's new book, "Power: Why some people have it and others don't."
Though local bookstore shelves are filled with leadership texts on climbing the corporate ladder, Pfeffer provides a guidebook that is exceedingly readable, grounded in social-science research and filled with both local and national examples to bring his points to life.
Pfeffer's work draws on 35 years of research and teaching on power, which he defines as "the ability to get your way — to overcome opposition and resistance to implement the decisions that you think are best for making your company, and you, successful."
In Silicon Valley, where business is king, "Power" will attract readers interested in unlocking the secrets behind the political realities that affect them each day in their own workplaces.
To be sure, Pfeffer aims his advice at employees of strongly hierarchical organizations, though he gives the disclaimer that his principles are not one-size-fits-all. Staff at companies that are relatively flat might find themselves picking and choosing from among Pfeffer's advice — or applying the principles to advance in an industry rather than a specific firm.
In 13 chapters, Pfeffer covers seven essential qualities that bring influence, what sources of power are, how to overcome opposition, the downsides of power, whether there's a connection between personal power and organizational effectiveness, and more.
Some of Pfeffer's advice will sound familiar: Get noticed, flatter your boss, act with confidence, network with people and manage your reputation.
But he also seeks to debunk some myths, such as that intelligence and likeability are keys to success in the workplace. Intelligence, he says, has been found to account for only 20 percent of variation in a person's performance on the job. In addition, intelligence comes with potential downsides, including the tendency for brilliant people to rely too heavily on their own competencies and sometimes to lack empathy for those who are not as smart.
Likeability can be a useful quality, Pfeffer says, but fear and the ability to help others accomplish their goals correlate more strongly to power. While likeability can create power, power almost certainly creates likeability, he asserts, explaining that people want to associate themselves with other people who are perceived as successful.
As Crew's story outlined, doing a good job and achieving power are also more tenuously linked than people might believe. Pfeffer quotes research that shows a weak relationship between job performance and success: In one Dutch study, white-collar workers who were rated "very good" at their jobs were only 12 percent more likely to be promoted than those rated only "good."
Similarly, the converse is true: CEOs whose businesses performed poorly for three consecutive years and then went bankrupt were only 50 percent more likely to be fired, Pfeffer reports.
Despite the research that Pfeffer highlights in his book, he says that systematic academic research on personal power in organizations has not been plentiful. So Pfeffer proposes his own list of the personal qualities of powerful people: ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy and capacity to tolerate conflict.
He details in his book how each quality leads to power, giving examples of people who have successfully used the skills to achieve their goals. He doesn't necessarily explain how to acquire these seven skills, however — noting only in the section on tolerating conflict, for example, that those who can handle stress-filled situations have an advantage over others.
While Pfeffer says he wrote the book to help people take steps to improve their influence in the workplace, he wisely addresses the inherent tension between gaining power and maintaining one's codes of ethics. After all, the corporate world is filled with people who shun power skills as insincere, dishonest and morally unacceptable.
To address the quandary some feel, Pfeffer starts the book with a bracing declaration: The corporate world isn't a fair one. The workplace as it exists is one in which there is zero-sum competition for status and jobs, and rivalry is intense, he writes.
This flies in the face of what most people want to believe, that "'people get what they deserve'; that is, that the good people are likely to be rewarded and the bad to be punished," he writes, quoting a book review of "The Belief in a Just World."
To get readers over their reluctance to step up their game, he appeals to people's desire to be healthy and live longer, citing research that showed a fourfold greater chance of death due to heart disease among low-ranked workers than high ones.
Sometimes it's a matter of career survival.
"Therefore, although self-promotion and fighting for your interests can seem unattractive, the alternative scenario is invariably much worse," Pfeffer says.
"Power and political processes in organizations are ubiquitous."
Pfeffer is not advocating that everyone embark on an all-out pursuit of power. He cautions his readers to find the right work situation given their aptitude and interests.
"Although it is possible and desirable to develop your power skills, few people are comfortable changing their likes and dislikes. Yes, you can evolve and change ... within limits," Pfeffer writes.
Whether it is worth it to gain power is for the reader to decide. Even so, Pfeffer's "Power" contains thought-provoking insight that will challenge workers to consider how they act in the workplace and how they can increase — or at the very least not squander — the power they have.
In that sense "Power," at its heart, is an empowering book.
Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.