Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

–Abraham Lincoln


What is the Psychology of Power? 

Power is a game changer. Rising higher in rank changes you and changes how others relate to you. 

Even with just a little bit of power, you experience changes in your perception, feelings, and attitude. Some of this, as we know, feels good: you feel more confident, less self-conscious, more decisive, and more action oriented. And of course you feel an ego boost because in the eyes of others, you have higher status. 

But there’s a price to pay for these good feelings. Like any mind-altering substance or behavior, the effects of power can be taken too far. 

The psychology of power makes people more confident, but it also decreases their interest in feedback, making them susceptible to faulty decision making. And while power increases action orientation, it also decreases interest in the needs and experience of others, leading to decisions and actions that can be demoralizing or disadvantageous to others. 

But perhaps what makes having power most precarious is that power doesn’t just change you. It changes the people around you. 

They begin to defer, to curry favor. They may be intimidated. They don’t speak up. Which all results in less feedback—both quantitative and qualitative. You receive less feedback overall, and the feedback you do get is often skewed and inaccurate. 

This ‘double whammy,’ of power changing you and the people around you, is the reason why it’s easy to go astray and become corrupted by the effects of power. 


How do we define power? 

Defining power isn’t easy because it’s the most widely defined concept in the social sciences. Bertrand Russell famously said that power is “the fundamental concept in social science, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.” 

It’s not just widely defined, but its definition changes depending on the discipline: sociology, psychology, economics, political science, philosophy, etc. 

And definitions of power also differ depending on whether it’s viewed as a noun: a thing, such as resource, right, position, or a verb: a behavior that impacts, influences, compels, controls, or directs. 

And finally, there is also a move to define power in terms of use: whether it’s used well (power-with or power-to—a collaborative, enabling use of power) or used poorly (power-over—an oppressive and controlling kind of power).

The definition that I like is that used by Professor of Psychology, Dacher Keltner, at the University of California at Berkeley. 

He defines power as “someone’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources such as food, money, knowledge, affection, or administering punishment such as physical harm, job termination, or even social ostracism.”

I like this definition because it highlights three critical components of power: 

Power is a resource. It’s something of value to someone else. If there’s no perceived value, the act of power will be unsuccessful. If I threaten to fire you, but you intended to quit anyway, and hate the job and don’t need it, it’s not of value to you. Thus my intended act of power (threatening to fire you) is futile. 

Power is manifold. If power is a resource, then by extension there must be many kinds of power. Maybe trying to fire you won’t work. But your boss could threaten to disclose salacious information about you to your coworkers. 

Now that resource (access to information) works! Someone could grant or withhold affection or attention, if it’s a resource you need, and that gives them power. Expertise, experience, belonging, personal charisma, all of these are types of power. 

Power is contextual. The different powers described above may work in a given context, but not all of them. Affection may be desired in a personal relationship, for example, but it’s not a resource that will give you power in a work setting. In a work setting, things like experience, expertise, and access give you power. 

These three critical features of power—that it’s a resource; it’s contextual; it’s manifold—show that the conventional singular and binary definition of power (you either have it or you don’t) are inadequate when discussing its impact.  


The Different Kinds of Power

Have you ever asked for a raise? 

Ever started a petition in your neighborhood or school? 

Ever convinced your group of friends to change their plans? 

If you’ve done any one of those things (or something similar), then you’ve used power and you have dealt with the psychology of power. 

Most discussions about the psychology of power focus on power as position or social status, things such as social identity (gender and race), wealth, or political power. But that’s an incomplete account of power. 

In every moment, throughout each day, you use all different kinds of power to impact others, to make change, to advance your agenda, and to make things happen. 

Some examples of different power:

  • Expertise
  • Experience
  • Relationship
  • Personal
  • Social
  • Positional
  • Informal

And the kind of power you use, following Keltner’s definition, depends on context:

  • Where are you?
  • What’s your relative rank?
  • What issue is at stake?
  • What’s the purpose? 

In some groups, your expertise gives you power. Your mastery of the topic, skills, and know-how can raise your status in the eyes of others, get them to listen, and even follow your lead. 

Sometimes, it’s your experience that gives you power. Maybe you’ve seen a lot, been through a lot, survived and worked through challenges. Maybe you’re older, or wiser in some way, and thus have greater insight and awareness in particular situations. 

Your judgment and decision making may be better because of your experience, and people defer to your judgment, seek your advice, and hold you in high regard. This is a form of power. 

Another form of power is through relationship ability. Relationships are enormously valuable resources. If you have a rich relationship life, have a deep and useful network, can make friends easily, and know how to get along with all kinds of people, you have an enormous life advantage. You can get people to support you, work with you (and for you), and refer you to their influential or well-connected friends. 

If you make a mistake, people are more likely to give you a second chance,  or if you find yourself in trouble they’ll go the extra mile for you, to help you out.

There is also personal power. Personal power is the power that comes from your traits and characteristics, as well as your self-awareness, and emotional and social intelligence. 

Personal power is your ability to influence others, make things happen, and survive and thrive through difficulties and challenges. It is often described as self-confidence, resilience, and poise. 

These four kinds of power — expertise, experience, relationship, and personal powers — all belong to you. They are often categorized as your ersonal power, meaning, they reside in you, whether innate or acquired. No one bestows those powers on you. 

What’s more, they’re somewhat contextually independent. Your expertise, experience, relationship ability, and personal power goes with you, from context to context. 

These are different from social powers, the power we traditionally think of when we think of power—power that is bestowed, granted, or earned from others. 

Social power draws its value from the norms, values, and societal structures. It includes things like your position or job, your wealth, social status, race, gender, or standing in a given group. And social power is specific to a given context. Because it draws its value and meaning from a given context, it doesn’t transfer as easily across contexts, as do your personal powers. 

Social status is the power you have that you were born with, or somehow accrued in life. 

It’s your wealth, connections, access to resources and privileges, and it’s based on social factors such as where you were born, your family name, your race, gender, education, socioeconomic status, religion, nationality, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, and sexual orientation. 

Social status plays a major role, though not the only role, in the opportunities and outcomes you have in life: education, income, employment, health, and life expectancy. 

Positional power is the formal role you occupy in a group or organization such as a workplace, volunteer association, club, place of worship, or political group. 

Informal or contextual power speaks to the unspoken, informal rankings within social groups based on things like popularity, seniority, alliances, or expertise and skill. In this context, rank comes from your ability to successfully align with the norms and values of the group. 

All of these powers are at play, continuously. In fact, we know them intimately as the rank dynamics or politics that are part of our everyday experience, whether at school, work, in the family, and even in friendship groups.

Moreover, studies of employee experience have shown that rank dynamics is the number one workplace complaint: cliques and insider/outside issues; meetings dominated or derailed by the loudest voice or voices; bias and discrimination; teams rife with power struggles—each member vying for the best project, the biggest budget, or the best people.

That’s why when it comes to how well (or how poorly) power is used, the psychological influences of power have to be taken into account.


The Psychological Influences of Power 

The psychology of power is so nuanced and difficult to navigate because many psychological influences come into play when it comes to rank dynamics and using power well.

By better understanding these psychological influences of power, you can begin to work with them in the moment so that you can have the impact on others that you intend.


You’re not just free to, you’re free from. 

Power is more than the capacity to do something, to impact, impel, influence, or empower. It is also the freedom to not do: to not fit in, to not adapt, to not feel pressured by others. 

Dacher Keltner and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to show how power grants the power holder freedom from normal social constraints. 

They randomly assigned individuals high- and low-power roles to see what, if any, differences in behavior and attitude emerged. They found that those in the high- ranking roles were less socially inhibited, acted in self-serving ways, and took up more space and more time in conversation. 

These high-power individuals were more attuned to their inner states and feelings, and more inclined to follow their ideas than be influenced by others.

They called this “disinhibition,” and while it can result in a misuse of power, it also serves a purpose. 

Think of revolutionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Eleanor Roosevelt—people who changed industries, challenged the status quo, transformed society, and ignored impossible odds. 

Leaders, entrepreneurs, social activists, and creative pioneers are all disinhibited to a degree. Because to do something that has never been done before means thinking outside the frontiers of social convention. However, while disinhibition can revolutionize an industry, it can also leave a trail of destruction in its wake. 

Disinhibited conduct is also the annoying behavior exhibited by persons of power who interrupt, dominate conversations, and patronize, bully, and harass others. 

Leaders who are too disinhibited are less likely to  listen to feedback or seek advice. They’re overly certain about their opinions, seeing themselves as experts, and ignoring or dismissing information from the actual experts they should be consulting. 

The ability to act without regard to convention is strengthened and amplified by another, closely allied, and equally potent psychological effect of power: illusory control.


I Alone Can Fix This 

People in high power roles also tend to display what researchers call a sense of illusory control. This belief in one’s ability to influence outcomes that are beyond their reach has wreaked havoc throughout history. 

From the captain of the Titanic—who ignored warnings of icebergs—to Napoleon invading Russia in winter, to George W. Bush proclaiming the war in Iraq would last no more than six weeks, people in power continuously and notoriously underestimate risks and overestimate the potential for success.

Like disinhibition, illusory control can be a useful and even healthy trait. It’s closely allied with optimism which is an important leadership trait, necessary to enroll people in your vision, and inspire people in the face of challenge. It’s also linked to self-esteem and an internal locus of control, both of which are correlated with the ability to handle stress and adversity. 

Yet just as it is with disinhibition, the psychological tendency towards runaway optimism and wishful thinking can lead to a delusional disregard of facts which in turn can lead to catastrophic results.


Let Them Eat Cake

Popular culture and literature frequently depict people in high power as callous and cruel. We needn’t look far for everyday examples: Wells Fargo bank leaders compelling employees to open fake accounts in customers’ names; city officials in Flint, Michigan knowingly permitting the city’s contaminated drinking water to poison thousands of its citizens; institutions such as the Catholic Church or Olympic Committees protecting known sexual predators in their ranks. 

Extreme though they may be, such examples demonstrate how the psychology of a high-ranking role diminishes empathy, impeding a leader’s ability to consider the impact of their actions on others, or to take on the perspective of others.

Research by Columbia Business School psychology professor Adam Galinsky and his colleagues demonstrated that people with higher rank are less able to accurately judge others’ emotions, and yet give themselves high ratings on their ability to do so.

It can be difficult to pinpoint how, but diminished empathy does have some utility. If a leader were overly affected by the circumstances of each individual in their group, it would be impossible to make decisions for the whole, especially when a long-term benefit overrides an immediate one. 

But diminished empathy is also one of the most common ways power corrupts: by making it hard to see how one’s actions influence others, tending to see people as a means to an end, and making decisions with significant consequences without thinking twice. 

These three psychological influences of power can metastasize into corrupting and callous leadership. But, that’s only half the picture, because power doesn’t just change you. It changes the people around you.


How The Psychology of Power Changes The People Around You 

Have you ever been promoted and found yourself leading your former teammates? Do you remember how that felt? 

The day after your promotion everyone begins treating you differently. The conversations with the same people feel differently than they did the day before. You get a different answer to the same question you asked the day before the promotion. 

 What’s happened? 

You are no longer just you. You have become a symbol of authority.

When you step into a role of power, people change how they see you, how they feel about it, and how they behave towards you. And the reason for this is that people relate to the power, not to the person.

They begin to view you through a magnifying Lens of Power. Suddenly your simple comments sound like commands, your casual opinions are thought to be a new strategy, a flippant comment can ruin someone’s week, and a casual compliment can boost their esteem for months. 

Like the psychological influences we’ve just seen, this comes with a cost. Because the lens of power is also a diminisher: a diminisher of creativity, talent, feedback, and engagement. 

When people defer to those in power, or hesitate to speak up—it’s a waste of talent. Companies spend a lot of money on talent. Yet that talent is wasted when people hold back their ideas and opinions, second guess themselves, and leave their best thinking at home out of fear, protection, or by feeling less valued or valuable. 

The lens of power also impacts a leader’s decision making. When people don’t speak up, share their thoughts, doubts, and concerns, managers are at risk failing to recognize potential problems and making the wrong decision. 

Finally, the lens of power means leaders aren’t receiving feedback. The power a leader wields over her subordinates’ careers makes those subordinates reluctant to give honest feedback. 

Leaders frequently trust an “inner circle” of advisors who themselves have a stake in the game. And even members of the inner circle may feel intimidated by the leader’s rank and tell her only what they think she wants to hear while minimizing (or hiding) bad news.

But feedback is critical to personal growth. We grow through the reflection of ourselves in the eyes of others. We grow through feedback from our environment. 

And when we don’t get an accurate, holistic picture of ourselves, when we don’t get regularly challenged by input and data outside of our preferred way of thinking, we will atrophy. We will not evolve. 

This is how leaders become out of touch and corrupted by power, how leadership teams make bad decisions. These are the traps of power, the influences of power that can be corrupting. 

But what is the antidote? 

How do we make power work better for us and for the people around us: for our organizations, for the culture and for business outcomes? 

How do we empower others given these influences of power? How can we use power in a way that creates the psychologically safe atmosphere needed for high functioning and engaged teams? 


Is there such a thing as Power Intelligence®

Like Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, understanding what power is, and how to use it well, requires Power Intelligence®. 

Power Intelligence® is the ability to recognize your powers, to manage them, and use them effectively in a way that benefits others as well as yourself. 

Below are some keys to using power well and avoiding the missteps and traps that derail our efforts.


1. Get regular feedback. See yourself from the outside in.

Feedback is vital for using power well. But not just any feedback. To grow, you need feedback that lies outside of your self-confirming beliefs. Feedback that feels uncomfortable. Why? 

Because the psychological influences of power, along with the corrupting lens of power, mean that we’re often not getting an accurate reflection of ourselves. We don’t see the experience we’re creating for others. And it means we’re missing vital, honest, and useful feedback about our impact. 

So how can you get the kind of useful feedback you need to grow? 

First, you have to make it easy for others to give you feedback: 

  • Don’t go first. Research shows that in brainstorming sessions, or decision-making meetings, people will tend to go along with the idea from the first person and the more dominant member of the group. So if you are the one in power, don’t share your opinions first. If you want others to speak up, then don’t be the first to talk.
  • Reward participation. People change behavior when it’s rewarded. You can tell people to “speak up” all you want, but if there’s no reward for that behavior, it won’t stick. If it’s important that people speak up and engage, then you need to recognize and acknowledge contributions. If there’s no recognition, over time, people will learn that it’s just not worth it to speak up.
  • Ask questions. Model fallibility. Show people you don’t have all the answers and make it safe for others to ask questions as well. What you model becomes the norm. 

Next, you have to create a culture of feedback: 

  • Train people to debate, make conflict safe, fun, and productive to create a culture of healthy and robust discussion where nothing is off limits, where people can argue and disagree without making it personal.
  • Create a team of advisors who have no stake in the game, who can challenge you, or bring in new thinking, ideas, and data from outside your organization, industry, or group.
  • Make it a habit to seek out “minority reports,” the oppositional idea, the naysayer, the doubts and cautions people might have. And make it a rotating role so that everyone gets a chance to speak the minority report, and no one gets typecast.


2. Maintain composure—watch for the “lure” of low rank!

In my work as a coach, one of the biggest misuses of power happens when leaders feel weak. The more powerless you feel, the worse you use power. Why? 

Because feeling weak or powerless means your emotions are in control. You are in a fight or flight or freeze response cycle. And that’s normal. 

But, in a high power role, allowing yourself to react poorly to stress, bad news, mistakes or obstacles, can be deadly. You can lash out, criticize, yell and berate people. Through the magnifying lens of power, this bad behavior not only is amplified but becomes the norm for others to follow. It diminishes your credibility, teaches people to avoid you and protect themselves, and creates a toxic culture.

Self-regulation is a key to using power well:

  • Become self-aware. Know what sets you off, what rattles you, and develop strategies for working with stress, triggers, reactivity, and the things that set you off. 
  • Take care of yourself—health, sleep, exercise. You’re more susceptible to stress and to losing your composure when you don’t take care of your physical self.
  • Have people to talk to, friends, advisors, coaches, or even a therapist—an emotionally unstable manager can wreak havoc on an organizational culture. 


3. Be aware of all your powers, and know how, when, and why to use them.

Remember, there are many kinds of power. And to be power intelligent, it’s critical to be aware of all of your powers, so you can use them wisely. 

If you have personal power and are socially bold, able to speak up, interrupt, and use your loud voice, do you do that for more than just putting forward your own opinion?

Do you also use it to invite in newcomers, advocate for people who are less able to speak up, and make sure every idea is heard? 

Do you have the power of knowledge, intellect, or expertise? If so, do you share your knowledge and experience with others? 

Do you use it to make sure the team is making the best decisions, or are you just using it to sound smart and win arguments? Do you use it to mentor and coach others, or just advocate for your own projects? 

If you have an extensive and powerful network, you have an advantage. People like you and are motivated to help you out. Do you use that power to make a seat at the table for others or do you simply enjoy high status within your clique? 

Do you use your broad network to find opportunities for others, or do you use it only to further your career? 

Take an inventory of your powers. Ask yourself where, how, what kind of power you have. 

Do you value it? Do you use it? If so, how? 

Get feedback from others on where they see your power. You may be surprised. Chances are you’re more powerful than you think.