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February 20, 2008

Power 3.0: Kinder, Gentler, and Better

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Choose your weapon:

Power 1.0 = muscle and weapons
Power 2.0 = money, market share, or brain power

Given these choices, most people and companies choose both. However, both Power 1.0 and 2.0 reflect Machievelli's thinking that it's better to be feared than loved. Dacher Keltner, professor at U.C. Berkeley, has defined what I would call "Power 3.0" in an article called "The Power Paradox."

In a nutshell, his concept is that power is the ability to influence people using skills in responsible ways to fulfill their needs and interests. (Note: "their needs and interests"—not the person or organization exerting power.) The paradox is that these skills are likely to deteriorate once you have power.

Keltner examines three myths of power:

  1. "Power equals cash, votes, and muscle." Not true. In psychological terms, power is the ability to "power is defined as one's capacity to alter another person's condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism." Thus, a child can exert power over her parents—as every parent knows. This means that you don't need to coerce or dominate to exert power.

  2. "Machiavellians win in the game of power.""P Not true. "...one's ability to get or maintain power, even in small group situations, depends on one's ability to understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence—reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions—prevails over social Darwinism."

    "Power is strategically acquired, not given." Not true. The truth is that people without power can band together and "constrain the actions of those in power." According to Keltner's research: "We've found that Machiavellians quickly acquire reputations as individuals who act in ways that are inimical to the interests of others, and these reputations act like a glass ceiling, preventing their rise in power."

Keltner concludes that "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" to quote British historian Lord Acton, and power frequently make people act in three dysfunctional ways:

  • Rely on stereotypes of people and less sophisticated reasoning.

  • Act on your own "whims, desires, and impulses."

  • Act like a sociopath.

Keltner concludes with this penetrating thought:

"Social behaviors are dictated by social expectations. As we debunk longstanding myths and misconceptions about power, we can better identify the qualities powerful people should have, and better understand how they should wield their power. As a result, we'll have much less tolerance for people who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force."

Here's to zero tolerance.


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