Sunday, January 27, 2008

All about power

The Winter-2007 issue of Greater Good is all about Power, and has at least two articles that are a must-read. The first one, Are You a Jerk at Work? by Bob Sutton, can be thought of as a summary of his recent book No Asshole Rule (which I'm reading now). Here's an excerpt from the section on how to deal with assholes:

My first tip is in a class by itself: Escape if you can. The best thing to do if you are stuck under the thumb of an asshole (or a bunch of them) is to get out as fast as possible. Not only are you at great emotional risk; you're also at risk of emulating the behavior of the jerks around you, catching it like a disease—what I call "asshole poisoning."

Indeed, experiments by psychologists Leigh Thompson and Cameron Anderson have shown that even when compassionate people join a group with a leader who is "high-energy, aggressive, mean, the classic bully type," they are "temporarily transformed into carbon copies of the alpha dog." Despite the risk of asshole poisoning, escape isn't always possible. As one woman wrote me in response to this advice, "I have to feed my family and pay my mortgage, and there aren't a lot of jobs that pay well enough to do that around here."

In those cases where a victim can't escape (at least for now), I suggest starting with polite confrontation. Some people really don't mean to be jerks. They might be surprised if you gently let them know that they are leaving you feeling belittled and demeaned. Other jerks are demeaning on purpose, but may stop if you stand up to them in a civil but firm manner. For example, an office worker wrote me that her boss was "a major jerk," but she found that he left her alone after she gave him "a hard stare" and told him his behavior was "absolutely unacceptable and I simply won't tolerate it."

The second must-read article -- titled The Power Paradox -- is by Dacher Keltner, and it is devoted to busting a bunch of myths about power that date back to Machiavelli's work. Here's an extract about what this power paradox is about:

... Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.

This research debunks longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people obtain it, and how they should use it. But studies also show that once people assume positions of power, they're likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view. This presents us with the paradox of power: The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.


  1. Unknown said...

    Thanks for the recommendations Abi! I didn't know about "Greater Good" until I read your post, and I'll definitely keep an eye on that magazine in the future. We need more magazines like that!

  2. Blue said...

    Great articles. I recognized the concept of "asshole positioning" instantly, although I think I've experienced it more as "you've got to be as ruthless and as hard-hearted as everyone else if you want to get ahead."

    Hard to imagine being asked to draw an E on the forehead and not automatically reversing it. 'Cause if you drew it facing you, you wouldn't be drawing a E. You'd be drawing something else.

    Also: where can I sign up for those psych studies which give out cash at the end? ^__^