How Do You Gain Power?


How do you gain power?  You start by reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book on how to gain power entitled:   Power:  Why Some People Have  It – And Others Don’t.  He writes “[y]our task is to know how to prevail in the political battles you will face. My job in this book is to tell you how.”  Pfeffer does a great job telling the reader how to gain power.  The following are just some of the many insights and recommendations from his book.

In support of why one should seek power, Pfeffer reports one study of various managers (1) some of whom were primary motivated by being right; (2) some of whom were motivated by the need for achievement; and (3) some of whom were primarily interested in gaining power.  Those interested in gaining power were the most effective not only in gaining power but also accomplishing their jobs.

He distinguishes his book from other leadership books – he notes that many leadership books review how leaders are after they have acquired power which may be very different from what they did to attain their position.  Part of this is due to the fact that people in powerful positions are able to tell the story the way they want to — and they may not tell the parts about acquiring power.

There is little correlation between job performance and power.  Strong performance does not guarantee power and poor performance does not prevent power.  More important than performance are the relationships that exist between power and (1) people who are noticed, (2) people who influence the criteria that measure their performance, and (3) people who manage up – people who manage people who do have power.  Pfeffer says that the notion that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is poor career advice. He recommends that you be memorable.  In addition, he recommends highlighting those dimensions of your job that you do well to influence the evaluation of your performance. Finally he strongly recommends managing up including remembering what matters to your boss and making those with more power feel better about themselves.  Keep your boss happy and remember that that flattery is effective.   Flattery’s effectiveness should not be underestimated it should not be underutilized. He reports an unpublished study that “sought to see if there was some point beyond which flattery became ineffective.…[the researcher expected that flattery would become] increasingly effective up to some point but beyond that becoming ineffective as the flatterer became seen as insincere and a “suck up”…. There might be a point at which flattery became ineffective but [the researcher] couldn’t find it in her data.”  See also Does insincere flattery work?  (spoiler alert:  yes, it does).

Personal Qualities that Build Power

Pfeffer identifies 7 personal qualities of people who accumulate power.

  1. Ambition — the desire to achieve power
  2. Energy — energy is contagious; energy enables hard work and energy shows commitment
  3. Focus — focus enables specialization in mastery in an industry or company, a set of skills, and critical activities
  4. Self-knowledge and structured reflection — enable skills to be improved
  5. Confidence — people associate constant behavior with power
  6. Empathy with others-the ability to read others thoughts and feelings
  7. Capacity to tolerate conflict — the ability to engage in conflict

Advice on Power — the following are my favorite nuggets.

*  Pfeffer offers advice on where to start, how to identify what departments have power, and how to weigh the trade-off between being in a powerful department with more competition and being in a department with less power but perhaps being able to build a stronger base.

*  Stand out and ask for things. He notes that asking works but people find it uncomfortable to ask for help. He reports studies that show people underestimate the willingness of others to help when asked. “One reason why asking works is that we are flattered to be asked for advice or help-few things are more self affirming and ego-enhancing and have others, partly talented others, seek our aid.”

*  Likability is overrated.  While likability can create power, power almost certainly creates likability. As Machiavelli advised it is better to be feared than loved.

*  Controlling resources creates power.  Positions with greater budgets and greater staffs have greater power.  Power comes from resources that you can control.  If you don’t have resources, then create something out of  nothing.  Resources are “anything people need or want–money, a job, information, social support and friendship, help in doing their job.  There are always opportunities to provide these things to others whose support you want.  Helping people out in almost any fashion engages the norm of reciprocity–the powerful, almost universal behavioral principle that favors must be repaid. But people do not precisely calculate how much rather they have received from another and therefore what they own return. Instead, helping others generates a more generalized obligation to return the favor, and as a consequence, doing even small things can produce a comparatively large payoff.”  (See also “Secrets from the Science of Persuasion” which also reports the power of reciprocity)

* “sometimes building a relationship so that others will help you requires nothing more than being polite and listening.”  Attend funerals, go to lunch with people, or take on seemingly unimportant tasks may demonstrate initiative and competence and increase one’s reputation.  He gives examples of people who accumulated power by each of these paths.

*  Network.  Pfeffer strongly recommends networking — building an effective social network including both internal and external contacts.

*  Act and speak with power.  For example, displays of anger are more often associated with power than displays of a sadness or remorse.

*  Build your reputation.  Build a reputation because with respect to power, perception is reality.  He proposes having others (including paid agent such as public relations people and executive recruiters) say positive things about your abilities.  One study noted that even when people know the agent is being paid, they still rate the person more highly than when the person made similar statements about themselves.  “What theses studies show is that even though people understand the financially intertwined interests of people hired to act on your behalf, and even though they know that agents are intermediaries are under your control, they will still rate you more highly and offer more help than if you acted on your own.” (See also “Secrets from the Science of Persuasion” which also reports that paid advocates are effective)

*  Resilience.  Resilience is important to those seeking power because everyone experiences setbacks.  Acquiring power requires persistence to overcome adversity.  Not giving up is a a precursor to success.  (See also “Grit:  Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

*  Some negative information is helpful as long as it is not too overwhelming. It increases power because supporters support you notwithstanding your flaws.

*  Take the initiative, especially if you see a power struggle coming.  If you wait, then others will seize the opportunity.

There is a lot more good advice and information in  Power:  Why Some People Have  It – And Others Don’t.  Pfeffer also discusses the price of power, why people lose power, and power dynamics in organizations.  He concludes his book with a chapter called “It’s Easier Than You Think.”  And by reading his book, it becomes even easier.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

    View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.