12:00 AM, December 28, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:26 PM, December 28, 2017

The power paradox

We gain power by doing good to others. The Machiavellian thesis that power is about force, intimidation and violence no longer passes muster. Instead, through social practices that promote the interests of others such as empathy, equality, collaboration, open mindedness and generosity, we acquire power.

At school, we grow in the esteem of our peers if we are nice to them and build strong ties. If we are passionate and open to innovative ideas, we listen well, express gratitude and share resources, we rise in the ranks in just about every walk of life.

And yet, when we feel powerful, we lose these qualities that got us there in the first place. This irony is brought to light in the book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (2016) by Dacher Keltner, best-selling author and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Keltner argues, as we experience elevated power or rise in the social status ladder, we are more likely to lie, cheat, steal, be disrespectful to others and violate traffic rules—acts that significantly reduce our capacity for influence. His argument is backed by facts.

In a series of studies, Keltner and his colleagues showed that those who drive pricey cars, BMWs, Mercedes and the like, are four times more likely to speed through crosswalks with pedestrians. Rich and powerful people are more likely to think that their time is more important than the safety of pedestrians. I am sure we all can relate to this strange phenomenon.

But why have aggression, coercion and manipulation ceased to be effective tools in the pursuit of power? Why do we now have to do good to others instead? How has the mantra changed from “Better to be feared than loved” to “Better to be loved than feared”?

Professor Keltner opines that the world has come a long way from the days of Machiavelli. There was very little rule of law then. Real journalism to hold people accountable had not taken root. There were oligarchs and the transfer of wealth to their relatives. And there was a general acceptance of violence. If you wanted to rise in power, you had people killed.

Those days are long gone. The shift has been away from violence to building community and, as influential political theorist Hannah Arendt noted, “stirring people to effective action.”

People's perception of power has changed. Keltner says that 40 years ago people identified great leaders with qualities such as boldness and assertion. Today, people are much more likely to say, “It's the person who is listening well and integrating people's ideas and building ties.”

One reason is that the nature of work has changed. Most jobs today are much more collaborative, interdisciplinary and complex than they were 50 years ago. Second, the emergence of multicultural societies has changed the face of power in many countries. And then there are more women in leadership positions and they have a different way of leading. These are the forces, in Keltner's opinion, that have reshaped the nature of power.

So what advice does he give people who want to gain power? Listen carefully, don't be arrogant, express gratitude, cultivate a culture of respect where everybody's opinion matter. Tell stories. Tell a remarkable story. A story that can stir enthusiasm in people. Ask questions. A question that brings out the most imaginative thinking in people.

And to avoid the paradox in which the very skills we depend on to gain power vanishes in our own sense of superiority, we must give it away in small acts of open mindedness, praise and teamwork.

All things considered, we keep and grow power by giving it away. Power expands when we empower others.


Amitava Kar is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.


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