Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't Featured

1:57pm EDT April 11, 2011
Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Do nice guys always finish last? Jeffrey Pfeffer, author and Stanford University professor, has a strong hunch that they do. He argues that an agreeable, modest demeanor puts one at a serious disadvantage when it comes to reaching the upper echelon of the corporate world. Part of the problem is people worry too much about what everyone else thinks.

In his book, “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t,” Pfeffer presents a plainspoken set of principles to ensure that a business professional gets noticed, connected and promoted in rapid succession. In this interview, he discusses why caring what others think is a recipe for disaster and why readers should seek to stand out from others.

You offer the advice that getting noticed is a key step on the path to obtaining power. Is there a right way to go about promoting oneself?

One thing that people often fail to do correctly is get other people to sing their praises for them. Even if you know that the person who is singing your praises has been hired by you to do it, it’s still better than doing it yourself. Do a favor for your colleagues and your organization; sing their praises and, in return, have them sing yours. Having other people tout you is a very good thing that some people don’t do enough of.

When the choice is between being noticed even if you’ve done it on your own versus not being noticed, it’s important for people to be noticed and be willing to stand out. Again, that goes back to this notion of not being liked. Some people say to themselves, ‘If I stand out, other people will envy me.’ That is certainly correct. People will envy you to the extent that you start out with a group of people and you rise up the organization faster than them. Get over what your peers are thinking about you because your peers are also your competitors.

You wrote that some tactics that would be considered workplace bullying are actually effective for the perpetrator. Are there cases where it can prevent someone from achieving power?

Leadership literature is very normative in its orientation. It describes a world that would not only be a nicer world, but one in which organizations would actually be more effective if people didn’t engage in bullying and abusive behaviors. But one of the questions people need to ask is, ‘If this is the case, why are there so many bad bosses in the world? Why are there so many bullies?’

People obviously prefer to deal with nice individuals. But above and beyond being nice, they’d like to deal with strong individuals and competent individuals. They like to believe that they’re associating with winners. The interesting thing is that, empirically, in many instances, niceness and competence are negatively correlated in people’s perceptions. [This is] not in reality but in how people perceive others.

Teresa Amabile [Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School] wrote an article several years ago (titled) ‘Brilliant but Cruel’ in which she found that people who gave negative book reviews were perceived as less nice but smarter and more competent.

What can you offer people who feel as though they’ve reached a dead end on the path to power?

Bernie Marcus, who wrote this wonderful book about his founding of The Home Depot [‘Built From Scratch,’ co-authored with co-founder Arthur Blank], says in the preface that the founding of The Home Depot began with the words, ‘You’re fired.’ He had been fired from Handy Dan Home Improvement Center. There is almost no career that I know of that does not have setbacks and adversity and opposition. The thing that makes people successful is the willingness to say, ‘OK, I’ve had a setback. What can I learn from this? I’m going to persist until I succeed.’

Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t

>> By Jeffrey Pfeffer

>> Harper Business, 288 pages, $27.99

About the book: “Power” is Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s examination of what it takes to successfully play the game of office politics. He suggests that many individuals fail to ascend to higher ranks in an organization because they mistakenly believe that the world is a fair and just place. Pfeffer offers insights into the accumulation and maintenance of power and the reasons why individuals who possess it lose their way.

The author: Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. He is the author of 13 books including, “What Were They Thinking?” and “Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations.”

Why you should read it: “Power” is unapologetic in its portrayal of the modern workplace. While the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century was a time in which the title of CEO became vilified, little has been done to change the traditional methods of asserting dominance in the work environment. After years of observation, Pfeffer provides the tactical means to navigate one’s way to the upper levels of an organization. Anyone in management who feels as if his or her efforts to quietly deliver good results are going unrewarded should read “Power.” It’s less a flirtation with the dark side than it is an accurate picture of what it takes to succeed in today’s ultra-competitive work environment.

Why it’s different: There are numerous management books that, as Pfeffer stated in the interview, offer an idealistic vision of what the workplace should be. Pfeffer goes against the grain and gives readers the ugly truth about success. He accepts and promotes the fact that his book will make some readers uncomfortable.

Can’t miss: “Getting In: Standing Out and Breaking Some Rules.” In this chapter, Pfeffer covers one of the more difficult skills for readers to master: the art of self-promotion. It is a delicate art that is rife with opportunities for heavy-handedness. Pfeffer does an excellent job of providing examples of the right ways to ensure that the most important people in an organization notice a reader’s stand-out achievements.

To share or not to share: This is not a book that is likely to be shared. People who oppose Pfeffer’s ideas would not want “Power” to fall into the wrong hands. Readers who agree with Pfeffer’s insights would prefer to keep his wisdom to themselves.

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