Today, I spoke to Jeffrey Pfeffer, who is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and the author of Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others. In this interview, Jeffrey talks about why he wrote a book on power, how to gain power and lose it, the best way to gain influence in an organization, and more.

Why did you decide to write a book on “power”?

For several reasons. First, people need to understand the game they are going to be playing if they work in an organization of virtually any size. Over the years I have seen people suffer career reversals and even lose their jobs because they are not aware of or skilled in organizational dynamics. Second, much of the leadership literature is unhelpful, as it mostly presents the world as it should be, not as it is. So people get a lot of misleading, albeit well-intentioned, advice. Third, as a teacher of this material for more than 30 years and an author of two previous books on the subject, I wanted to bring my social science knowledge and experience with guiding students and executives of all ages to a wider audience. And fourth, people need to learn how to take care of themselves. Instead of waiting for bosses to become better, they need to figure out how to survive and indeed prosper in the world they face. So, this is a book about how to get power for yourself.

How do you gain power, and how can you lose it?

You gain power first of all by continually building the personal qualities, including energy, persistence, ability to put yourself in the other’s place, and willingness to engage in conflict and not be liked, that provides you influence. This requires coaching and having a personal development plan. Then you build effective and efficient social networks, where you can occupy a central position and play a brokerage role in bridging otherwise unconnected groups or organizations. And you gain discretionary control over resources such as physical space, money and budgets, and agendas.

People lose power because they get tired of being constantly on their toes, and also take the flattery that invariably accompanies being in a position of power too seriously. Believing their own press and that the rules don’t apply to them, they forget that everyone—and I mean everyone—has a boss or set of bosses who you need to placate in order to remain in power.

What are some of the best way to move up in an organization and influence through power?

Understand that, to use Keith Ferrazzi’s apt phrase to my class, “you are not responsible for your own success.” What he means is that your success depends on the interest of your boss(es) in making you successful. Therefore, the key to moving up is to build a positive relationship with your boss. This entails using flattery, something that is consistently underused and underestimated. It also entails helping your boss be and look successful, and certainly not telling your boss that s/he is wrong too directly or too often. It is putting the self-enhancement idea—people like to feel good about themselves—to work, by making those on whom you depend feel good about themselves and, therefore, about you.

What are some of the best way to move up in an organization and influence through power?

“Get over it.” If you won’t stand up for yourself, if you won’t advocate on your own behalf, if you won’t expend energy to advance your career, don’t rely on the generosity or kindness of others. The aphorism, slightly altered, that people help those who help themselves is certainly correct. That’s mostly because people enjoy basking in the reflected glory and success of others, so if you signal through your actions that you are going to do what it takes to be successful, others will join you. If you signal diffidence or even indifference to your power and success, you will have few allies.

How does one sharpen their “acting” skills on the job?

First of all, I am a big advocate of taking acting and speaking classes or at least finding places to develop such skills—in amateur theatre groups and in arenas where you can practice presenting to an audience. The more uncomfortable you are with such activities, the more you probably need them. Acting involves getting in touch with past emotions and bringing them to the present moment. It also entails recognizing that you are always “on stage” in the sense that others may be observing you. And it mostly involves thinking strategically about how you want to come across, and then setting the stage and behaving accordingly.

Jeffrey Pfeffer
is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University where he has taught since 1979. He is the author or co-author of thirteen books including The Human Equation, as well as more than 120 articles and book chapters. Pfeffer’s latest book, entitled Power: Why Some People Have It—And Others Don’t will be published in September, 2010 by HarperCollins. Pfeffer has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, London Business School, and a frequent visitor at IESE in Barcelona. From 2003-2007, Pfeffer wrote a monthly column, “The Human Factor,” for Business 2.0. Pfeffer currently serves on the board of directors of the for-profit company Audible Magic as well as nonprofits Quantum Leap Healthcare and The San Francisco Playhouse.