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London Business School on Gaining and Using Power

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Power shapes every interaction. Powerful people get their way often, we’re generally nicer to them, and we listen to them. So how do you get power and use it? Power is a zero-sum game and complicated to discuss. However, for London Business School Associate Professor Ena Inesi, that’s what makes it so appealing to study.

Power is Situationally Dependent

Power is “the privileged access to a resource that other people want and have less access to.” This could equate power to money, respect, or contact with important individuals. The reality is that power can be different between people and situations. You might hold power in one area and have no power in another.

“Power is shifting, it’s fleeting,” says Inesi. “It’s relative and it’s always about what matters in that moment—what is the value currency?”

Power also extends beyond an individual. The people around you can enable power, as in the case of mogul Harvey Weinstein. He was a gatekeeper for women’s careers, which was “something that was incredibly valuable to them. Most of these women were very early on in their careers, so the power discrepancy was massive.”

Power Exaggerates Our Personality

At the same time, power doesn’t necessarily change who we are on the inside. Instead, it frees us to act more in line with what we truly want. This is especially the case where there’s a strong power hierarchy. In these situations power greatly exaggerates your good and bad behaviors. In particular, there’s a focus on bad behaviors called the “power paradox.”

While you might rise to power because of your good qualities, once you gain power, the responsibilities take their toll and change your interactions.

“We rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst,” explains UC Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltner. “We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.”

Good People Gaining Power

So, how can we ensure that good people gain power? The problem is that there are many trade-offs to take power. Often you have to choose between being liked and getting things done. You also have to trade how you spend your time. The reality is that the world is not fair and that to gain power you have to treat your peers as your competitors and that can make it difficult to be considered a “good” person.

The key is to change how we think of power. Power is merely the “capacity to bring about certain intended consequences in the behavior of others,” says Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. So, don’t avoid power. Pay attention to powerful people and the skills they display. That’s what you need to acquire.

Gaining Power

To gain power, there are five things that Assistant Professor Eliot Sherman suggests you do.

  1. Learn to influence others
  2. Understand cultural differences
  3. Stay hungry
  4. Know the politics
  5. Acknowledge the gender issue

Learn more by reading Power Play in the London Business School Review.

Kelly Vo
Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and topics related to personal development. She has been working in the MBA space for the past four years in research, interview, and writing roles.