Book review: Power — Why some people have it and others don’t

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

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

HarperCollins ($32.99 Cdn)

You’re a team player. You do your best to fit in. You go along to get along. You play by the rules.

You’re a workhorse. You get the job done and done right. No fanfare. No drama. No blowing your own horn. You believe your actions speak louder than words.

Which is all well and good unless you’re banking on a promotion any time soon. 

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that good performance – job accomplishments – is sufficient to acquire power and avoid organizational difficulties,” says author Jeffrey Pfeffer and a professor at Stanford University. “If you are going to create a path to power, you need to lose the idea that performance by itself is enough.”

So what else do you need?

You need to get noticed.  To move up the org chart, the people in power have to pick you for a senior role. But powerful people are preoccupied with their own agendas.  They aren’t paying much, if any, attention to you and what you’re doing.

They’re not going to seek you out so you need to stand out.  You need to be visible, familiar and memorable.  You need to tell your boss what you’re accomplishing and contributing.

“If you blend into the woodwork, no one will care about you, even if you are doing a great job,” says Pfeffer. “Being memorable equals getting picked.”

Do not listen to anyone who believes that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. It’s lousy career advice, warns Pfeffer.

“In order for your great performance to be appreciated, it needs to be visible.”

It’s not just what you tell your boss. It’s what you ask. You need to find out what matters to your boss. Because what matters to your boss should matter to you.

“Many people believe they know what their bosses care about. But unless they are mind readers, that’s probably a risky assumption. It is much more effective for you to ask those in power, on a regular basis, what aspects of the job they think are the most crucial and how they see what you ought to be doing.”

And that’s where you need to turn in a command performance and deliver stellar results.

There’s one other thing you need to do. You need to make your boss and others in power feel better about themselves. “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves,” says Pfeffer. “The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or who has a difficult relationship with those in power.”

It turns out flattery really will get you everywhere. “Flattery works because we naturally come to like  people who flatter us and make us feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments, and being likeable helps build influence.”

A professor at the University of California-Berkeley did a study to see if there was a point beyond which flattery becomes ineffective and the flatterer comes across as insincere, annoying and a suck up. The prof couldn’t find that threshold in her research. So when it comes to flattery, you can never overdo it.

The big lesson here is that you need to worry about your relationship with your boss as much as you worry about your job performance.

“The people responsible for your success are those above you, with the power to either promote you or to block your rise up the organizational chart. And here are always people above you, regardless of your position,” says Pfeffer.

“Therefore, your job is to ensure that those influential others have a strong desire to make you successful. That may entail doing a good job. But it may also entail ensuring that those in power notice the good work that you do, remember you, and think well of you because you make them feel good about themselves. It is performance, coupled with political skill, that will help you rise through the ranks. Performance by itself is seldom sufficient, and in some instances, may not even be necessary.”

Pfeffer says most leadership lectures, courses and books by well-known executives should be stamped with a caution warning so we’re fully aware that the material could be hazardous to our organizational survival.

Successful leaders tend to gloss over the power plays that got them to the top. And the teaching on leadership serves up prescriptions “about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing. In short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behave.”

Pfeffer’s book doesn’t need a caution warning and warrants a careful read by anyone interested in knowing how the world really works, how to gain more power and influence and how to move up the ladder of success.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s