Book Summary: Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Book Cover for Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

In Power: Why Some People Have It —and Others Don’t, Jeffrey Pfeffer outlines variety of practical suggestions on how to get promoted and obtain power in the workplace. Pfeffer is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford.

Buy Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power at: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

Key Takeaways from Power

  • Power is worth seeking because it’s correlated to a longer and healthier life, it can produce wealth, and is often necessary to get things done.
  • The world is not fair. Performance alone will not get you power; you also have to be politically savvy and play the game.
  • Playing the power game is easier than most people think. Sometimes it can be as simple as recognising a good opportunity and going for it.
  • To obtain power you have to:
    • Stand out. For people in power to promote you, they first need to notice you.
    • Control resources. Control over resources like money or jobs brings power, and you can use those resources to gain even more power. Even if you think you have nothing, you still have one resource to begin with — time and attention.
    • Build relationships. To build relationships with those in power, do what they care about, ask for help, and flatter them. Networks are also a source of power — being at the centre of network means that information will flow to you.
    • Appear powerful. Situations are often ambiguous so people will look to your behaviour for cues. If you act powerful, others will assume you have power, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also make sure you manage your reputation, as a good reputation is self-reinforcing.
  • Power comes at a cost. The most common ones are:
    • Visibility and public scrutiny.
    • Loss of autonomy.
    • Time and effort.
    • Trust issues.
    • Withdrawal when you lose power.
  • Don’t worry about whether seeking power is harmful to your organisation, because your organisation doesn’t care about you. Besides, power and hierarchy are ubiquitous, so you may not be able to avoid it even if you wanted to.

Detailed Summary of Power

Why seek power?

Some people seek power as a goal in and of itself. But even if you’re not one of them, you may still want power because:

  1. Power is correlated to living a longer and healthier life (even after controlling for differences in smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity and physical activity.)
  2. Power can produce wealth.
  3. Lastly, power is part of leadership and is necessary to get things done. In many jobs, such as product managers, you may need others’ cooperation to accomplish their tasks, but will not have line authority or control over those people. So you may need to use influence and political skills instead.
There is a lot of zero-sum competition for status and jobs. Most organizations only have one CEO, there is … only one prime minister or president or president at a time.
— Jeffrey Pfeffer in Power

The world is not fair

Many people believe that the world is a fair place where everyone gets what they deserve. Melvin Lerner first described this “just-world hypothesis” in 1980. Scores of experiments and studies since then have reinforced it.

The belief manifests in several ways:

  • First, people think they’ll get ahead simply by doing a good job, so refuse to be proactive in taking actions that will actually increase their power.
  • Second, if people see someone else succeed, they’ll tend to assume that the successful person did something to deserve his success. (Conversely, this can also result in ‘blaming the victim’ mentality.)

The leadership literature tends to play into this. Leaders writing about their own careers tend to gloss over the power plays they made. Instead, they’ll talk about being truthful and authentic, modest and self-effacing, and following your inner compass. Even books written about successful leaders can be biased, because the just-world effect means that people are more likely to selectively remember the positive characteristics of successful people.

Unfortunately, the world is not fair. Performance does not guarantee success or power. Numerous studies have shown that performance has a statistically significant, but substantively small, effect on career advancement. In some cases, being too good at your job can even hurt your career, as your boss may actively work to prevent your advancement because they don’t want to risk losing you.

It’s easier than you think

People often “self-handicap” by pre-emptively surrendering or putting obstacles in their own way in order to preserve their self-esteem. For example, deliberately choosing not to study for a test so that if you fail, you can tell yourself you could’ve done well if you’d tried.

Similarly, being unwilling to play the power game means that you don’t have to risk playing and failing at it. But Pfeffer argues that applying the concepts in his book are easier than you may think. A “power play” does not require an extraordinary act. It may consist of nothing more than recognising an available opportunity and taking it.

You also don’t know whether you like playing the power game until you’ve tied it. If you’re hesitant, you may choose to start out in a low-risk setting like a student committee, where you have the best chances of success.

How to gain power

Some caveats:

  • There are no simple, universal, formulas for actions that will work equally well in all circumstances. Context matters — different organisations have different cultures, and individuals will differ too.
  • No advice will work 100% of the time. Even if you act in accordance with the best, most recent, behavioural research, good outcomes are not guaranteed. All you can do is tilt the odds in your favour. [See also Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke.]

Personal qualities to build power

To gain power, you need to believe that personal change is possible. While our attributes come from some combination of genetics and upbringing, Pfeffer argues it’s possible to strategically change your individual attributes to become more powerful.

First, you need to see yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses as objectively as possible. This is difficult because we like to think well of ourselves and tend to avoid people who criticise us. We also don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s important to get advice from others who will tell you the truth about yourself.

Pfeffer sets out 7 personal qualities that build power:

  1. Ambition
  2. Energy
  3. Focus
  4. Self-knowledge
  5. Confidence
  6. Empathy with others
  7. Conflict tolerance

He suggests grading yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) on each of the attributes and developing an action plan to build up your weakest qualities. If you can get a friend to grade you as well, even better.

1. Ambition

You need to motivate yourself to spend the effort and make the sacrifices that success demands. Ambition gives you the focus to help overcome the temptation to give up when faced with the irritations and frustrations of organisational life.

2. Energy

Energy is contagious, and energetic leaders inspire more effort on the part of their subordinates. Having lots of energy allows you to work longer hours, which gives you an advantage in getting things done. Expending a lot of energy also shows organisational commitment and loyalty, so can increase your chances of getting promoted.

Pfeffer argues that people can develop more energy and get by on less sleep. [However, he doesn’t refer to any studies for this, only two (very brief) anecdotes. While I’m sure that eating well and exercising will increase energy, I suspect people are born with naturally different energy levels.]

3. Focus

Your experience and social contacts are context-specific. When you move to something new, you lose the resources and skills you’ve built up.

There are several dimensions to focus:

  • Focus on a particular industry or company;
  • Focus on a limited set of activities or skills; and
  • Focusing on the most crucial or impactful activities.
    [The first two are about specialisation, the opposite of David Epstein’s Range. The third seems to be more about prioritisation — focusing on what matters — a different kind of focus.]

By focusing on a particular industry or company, you can build up detailed knowledge of the issues there and form deeper relationships with people in the area. These help you exercise power. A recent examination of S&P 500 CEOs found that the median tenure with their company was 15 years.

Secondly, a lot of research suggests that you need to put in a large number of hours to achieve outstanding levels of competence. You can reach those hours more quickly by concentrating in a narrower domain. [Pfeffer contradicts himself somewhat here, as he just spent the previous chapter talking about how performance is not necessary or sufficient for gaining power.]

Lastly, focusing on the most crucial or impactful, high-leverage activities means focusing on those that have the greatest impact on your work and on others’ perceptions of you.

4. Self-knowledge

Reflection is essential to learning and personal development. Andy Hargadon noted that, by not reflecting and learning, many people who think they have 20 years of experience actually just have one year repeated 20 times.

Structured reflection takes time and discipline. You have to concentrate, make notes and think about what you are doing.

Joe Beneducci, note-taker extraordinaire

Joe Beneducci, the 39-year-old CEO of the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, attributed his success to reading and structured self-reflection.

After every significant meeting or interaction, he’d make a note of what went well, what hadn’t, and the outcome of the meeting. Joe believes this discipline fostered reflection, and the notes helped him be more effective in future interactions.

5. Confidence

In deciding how much power and deference to give someone, people naturally look to a person’s behaviour for cues. If you act confident, people will tend to assume you have power, and this helps build influence. Whereas if you’re not confident, you’ll be reluctant ask or push for things that benefit you — and ultimately less successful in obtaining those things.

Most of us have modesty impulses — you don’t want to brag — and you have to learn to defy these basic human impulses and say, ‘I’m the greatest, and here is why you need me for this job,’ and do it without any hesitation or any doubt.
— Lawrence O’Donnell, political analyst for MSNBCame

Showing confidence can be harder for women, who are socialised to be more deferential and less assertive. This is one reason for the gender pay gap — because women don’t think they are worth as much, so are disadvantaged in salary negotiations. [Note, however, there is research showing women face a “backlash effect” when engaging in self-promotion, and that their desire to avoid backlash, rather than their socialisation, is why women tend not to do as much of it.]

6. Empathy with others

Focusing too much on the end goal and our own objectives can get in the way of understanding others’ perspectives.

One reason Lyndon Johnson was a successful Senate majority leader was because he paid attention to others and understood what made each of them tick. He knew all sorts of mundane details — who wanted a private office, who was a womaniser, who wanted to go on a particular trip — that enabled him to gain their support.

7. Conflict tolerance

Most people are conflict-averse, preferring to acquiesce to others’ requests instead of paying the emotional cost of standing up for themselves.

But conflicts are an opportunity to learn. If you’re in a leadership position, it can be irresponsible to avoid disagreements and difficult situations. Research also shows that if you don’t advocate for yourself in situations where that’s expected (e.g. job interviews and pushing for a promotion), people tend to believe you’re incompetent or unskilled at dealing with these situations.

Being rude and contemptuous and refusing to back down can even be a power-play. Your ability to tolerate conflict can wear down the opposition. Moreover, if you can persist for longer, that allows for the possibility that the situation shifts to your advantage.

That said, it’s important to pick your battles. Conflict arouses strong emotions, which can distract you from your highest priorities. This links to the above point about “Focus”.

Overrated qualities: intelligence and likability

Both intelligence and likability may help in building power, but Pfeffer argues that they are overrated:

  • Intelligence. Intelligence is the best predictor of job performance, but rarely explains more than 20% of the variation in work performance. Moreover, the correlation between work performance and power is weak. It’s also possible that, beyond a certain level, intelligence can be detrimental, because it can lead to overconfidence, make people less sensitive to others’ needs, and be intimidating.
  • Likability. Studies show people are more likely to do favours for those they like, and likability is an important basis of interpersonal influence. However, most of those studies likability involved cases where the two people had relatively equal power, and granting a request was largely discretionary. Research also shows that niceness can look weak or suggest a lack of intelligence. To appear competent, it’s helpful to be seem a little tough or mean. Besides, people like to associate with powerful and successful people, and, over time, attitudes follow behaviour. They’ll usually also forgive and forget wounds inflicted on them. As Machiavelli said, if you have to choose between being feared or loved, it’s better to be feared.

Where to begin your career

Being in the right place at the right time makes for an easier path to power.

The “right place” means both the right organisation and department within the organisation: a 1990 study of over 300 managers in a large company found that where they began their careers affected the rate of their salary increases. Those in more powerful units advanced more rapidly.

Which department has the power?

A department that can provide money or skills, or the ability to solve critical organisational problems, will have more power. As the sources of money and the skills that are critical may change over time, so too can the locus of power.

To identify the most powerful departments, look at:

  • Relative pay. In more powerful departments, starting salaries and senior salaries tend to be higher.
  • Physical location and facilities. Physical proximity to those in power signals power and also provides power through increased access. This is particularly true of highly politicised places like the White House. In Pacific Gas and Electric, for example, you could see the engineering department moving down the headquarters building as they lost power, eventually being shunted to a satellite facility miles away. At the same time, the legal and finance departments moved up.
  • Positions on committees and senior management. Look at which insiders are most likely to serve on a company’s board of directors. Other than the CEO, it’ll usually only be finance. The composition of the most powerful committees can likewise reveal which departments have the most power.
  • Background of senior-level team. The backgrounds of the CEO and COO indicate its relative power.

Any single indicator can be misleading, but you can be more confident if multiple indicators consistently point in the same direction.

The locus of power can change over time

As noted above, which department has the power can vary depending on the company and the time. For example, at Pacific Gas and Electric, engineers used to hold the power but this shifted over time to the legal department. At General Motors, finance presented the best path to power. At the University of Illinois, physics seemed to hold the power.

CEO backgrounds over time

Neil Fligstein researched CEO backgrounds and found that the most common backgrounds for CEOs were:

  • Around the start of the 1900s — entrepreneurs
  • Then — manufacturing and production
  • 1920s and 1930s — marketing and sales
  • 1960s to 1980s — finance
The most powerful places are also the most competitive

There is a trade-off between the existing power of an organisation or department, and the ease of advancing there. The department dealing with the organisation’s core activity or product may be the most powerful, but you’re also likely to face the greatest competition there.

A better approach may be to go to underexploited niches that you think will be powerful in the future, where you can build power more easily. But this is also riskier, so which path you opt for will depend on your personal risk appetite.

Ford’s Whiz Kids

After WWII, a small group of very smart young men (the Whiz Kids) who had provided analytical support for the Pentagon decided to move to Ford Motors as a team. At the time, the company was a mess, led by an inexperienced Henry Ford II, with plenty of internal problems.

The Whiz Kids selected Ford because they felt they could have a substantial and immediate impact on the company and chose to work in the finance, accounting and control functions. They rose to the top of the company and later influenced a whole generation of management in many large corporations.

Research shows that status tends to be “imported” from one domain to another. People generally assume that if you can succeed in one competitive domain, you’ll be competent enough to succeed in another. So the fact that you manage to reach a powerful position somewhere may be more important than the specific organisation or domain in which you rise to power.

Controlling resources

Resources bring power

Investigative journalists know that “following the money” will reveal power structures in governments and communities. This is because controlling access to resources, such as money and jobs, brings power. Those who control resources can use those resources to reward their allies and punish their opponents.

Two implications flow from this:

  1. Choose positions that have greater direct resource control of more budget or staff. This generally means preferring line positions to staff positions, as line positions usually control more employees and budgetary authority. But there can be exceptions (e.g. finance is a staff position yet controls resources across the whole organisation).
  2. Much of your power comes from the position you hold and the resources you control. This means that when you leave that position, people will give you much less attention and respect than before.
Starting with nothing

If you use your resources strategically, you can gain favours from others, which makes it easier to gain and maintain power in a positive cycle. But how do you get resources to begin with?

Pfeffer believes it’s never impossible or too late to begin. A “resource” is anything that someone may want or need — not just money or jobs, but also information, social support and help. You can use your time and attention as a resource to build power, little by little, over time. A network (see below) is an example of a resource you can create from scratch. Small things — such as going to people’s birthday parties, visiting when someone is sick, or even just being polite and listening to others — can make a big difference.

Similarly, small tasks that seem unimportant or uninteresting can end up being sources of power. For example, a small task that Frank Stanton did on his way to becoming president of CBS was to do surveys and compile data to acquire information about any topic that senior management might be interested in (e.g. demographic information, who owned buildings where CBS wanted office space, etc).

[The trick seems to be in identifying the neglected but important tasks. Many small tasks are thankless for a reason. I suspect that if a task can lead to power, yet is still neglected, it’s because it hasn’t been specifically identified or advertised by anyone. In which case the key is to take initiative in identifying those tasks, and then do them.]

Building relationships

Relationships, whether with those above you or around you, are crucial to gaining and maintaining power.

Relationships with those in power

People above you have control over your advancement, so you should worry about those relationships at least as much as you worry about your job performance.

Get noticed

To choose you for a senior role, people first have to remember you. Powerful people are busy. They won’t be paying much attention to what you are doing, so you have to stand out for them to remember you.

Social psychologist Robert Zajonc discovered the “mere exposure effect”, which finds that, all else equal, people tend to prefer the familiar.

Dinner with the boss

When Keith Ferrazzi graduated from Harvard Business School, he had multiple job offers from consulting firms. Before accepting one, he insisted on meeting the “head guys”, and met with the head of Deloitte Consulting, Pat Loconto, at an Italian restaurant.

Ferrazzi told Loconto that he’d only accept the offer if Loconto agreed to have dinner with him once a year at the same restaurant. Loconto agreed.

[This is incredibly audacious. I’m not surprised that it works, but I also think there are very good reasons why people are reluctant to try it (especially women).]

Networking (see below) also helps increase your salience, by bringing you into contact with more people, so they’re more likely to think of you when a position is open.

Do what your bosses care about

One reason why performance doesn’t always lead to power is because what your boss cares about may not be the same as what you think is important.

Find out what those in power care about by asking them on a regular basis what aspects of the job they think are crucial and what they think you should be doing.

Ask for help

Learn to ask for things. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be turned down, but you’ll be no worse off than before.

Most people find it uncomfortable to ask for things because it’s inconsistent with the American emphasis on self-reliance, and are afraid of rejection, and only tend to make requests they think are likely to be accepted. The problem is that we systematically underestimate the likelihood of success.

People are more willing to help than we expect

A 2008 study asked participants to estimate how many strangers they’d need to approach to get 5 people to fill out a short questionnaire, before actually doing so. The average estimate was 20 people. The actual number turned out to be 10.

Moreover, asking for help turned out to be so uncomfortable that 1 in 5 participants did not complete the task. This is much higher than the average dropout rate of experiments.

Requestors tend to focus on the costs of complying with the request and overlook the costs of rejecting it. We are inclined to grant requests when we can, because rejecting it feels awkward and violates the social norm of “being benevolent”.

Make those in power feel good

We naturally like people who make us feel good about ourselves, so you should:

  • Flatter those in power. Flattering someone makes them want to reciprocate by helping you out.
  • Avoid criticising them. Even if you see your boss make a mistake, wait for someone else to point it out. If you have to raise it, blame the mistake on others or on the situation, so as not to undermine their sense of competence.

Does flattery backfire?

Flattery is underused because most people underestimate its effectiveness and worry it may backfire. Jennifer Chatman, a UC Berkeley professor, thought that the effectiveness of flattery might be U-shaped, in that it declines if used excessively. However, she couldn’t find such a relationship in her data.

If someone flatters you, you have two choices of how to react:

  • you can view the person as insincere and the compliment as being fake. But this not only leads you to view the person negatively, it also leads you to feel negatively about yourself. Do people really think so lowly of you that they believe such transparent “sucking up” would work?
  • alternatively, if you believe the compliment is sincere, you can feel great about yourself and the flatterer.

A subtle way to flatter someone is to ask for their help. For example, when Barack Obama was a new senator, he asked about a third of the senators for help and built mentoring relationships with several. Asking for help is inherently flattering, as it reinforces the grantor’s position of power. You can make it moreso if you emphasise the importance and accomplishments of the person you’re asking.

People in power may also be willing to grant requests because it gives them a chance to call on you to reciprocate the favour later.

Build networks

Most people don’t do enough networking. Pfeffer argues it does not take as much time and effort as people usually think — it mostly takes thought and planning. An occasional note, or phone call, helps keep you salient to others.

Jobs may require networking to a higher or lesser degree. In some jobs, the whole point is to bring people from different areas or organisations together and broker deals. Many studies show a correlation between networking and positive performance evaluations, career satisfaction, salary and organisational level. Several longitudinal studies go further and suggest that networking can cause these positive effects, too.

Centrality matters

Being at the centre of a network means information flows to you, which gives you a source of power. Another source is that people tend to attribute power to those in central positions. Being in a physically central location can also help — e.g. a desk in a heavily trafficked area will expose you to more information than a quiet desk in the corner.

People sometimes think that being connected to another person with good networks is enough to gain much of the benefits. However, one study found that being one step removed from the person doing the brokerage enjoyed virtually no benefit.

Difficult relationships

When faced with people opposed to you or your goals, you can turn them into allies or at least neutralise them:

  • Give them a stake in your success. This gets your enemies on your side while maintaining their feeling of power and autonomy.
  • Make it easy and pleasant for them to leave. Let them leave in a way that allows them to save face, especially if they move doesn’t cost you much. This is why boards and bosses say nice things about people leaving — to make the exit easier. You might even think about helping them get a job elsewhere to get them of your way.

If that isn’t feasible and you still have to work with the people, find a way to make important relationships work. Don’t take things personally and get over feelings like anger and resentment that might get in the way of the relationship. This can be hard — it requires a high level of discipline and emotional maturity. But it is crucial.

Appearing powerful

Appearing powerful involves acting with power, speaking with power, and managing your reputation.

Acting with power

When you act with power, you gain power. After a while, what starts out as an act becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.
— Peter Ueberroth, as quoted in Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Situations are often ambiguous — did you leave or get fired? Was your project successful or not? Others will look to your behaviour for cues. They want to associate with winners so if you act like you will prevail in the end, they will believe it and be more willing to assist you.

Pfeffer offers various practical suggestions for appearing more powerful:

  • dress up and change your hairstyle to look like you belong in the position you want;
  • stand up straight and thrust your chest and pelvis forward to assume a powerful posture;
  • express anger, which has been shown to convey power, competence and even intelligence (although this may not work for women — it’s still an open question);
  • to display emotions you don’t feel (e.g. confidence, anger, compassion), tap into your emotions from another time when you did feel them;
  • make sure your setting and furnishings convey power; and
  • take time to collect yourself and think things through before responding, instead of speaking while you’re still flustered and unsure.
Speaking with power

Pfeffer shares a variety of suggestions to help you speak with power. [I’ve reorganised these into what I think is a logical order.]

What you say:

  • Simple sentences. Simple, declarative sentences sound stronger than long, convoluted ones.
  • Use lists. Lists make it seem like you’ve thought about an issue thoroughly. Lists of three are particularly effective, as they give the impression of unity.
  • Use contrasts. Choose the contrast strategically to make a point. Us vs them language, such as “my friends” and “we”, is a particularly effective contrast that promotes affiliation with your ideas.
  • Challenge the premises. In all conversations, there are some common assumptions we all share (e.g. how is the company measuring success, what the strategy is). Challenging these assumptions is a power move.
  • Use humour as appropriate. Humour is disarming and creates a bond with your audience.

How you say it:

  • Interrupt people. Interrupting others can be an effective power move. Conversation analysts find that men interrupt more frequently than women do, and doctors constantly interrupt their patients.
  • Pause. Pause for emphasis and to invite approval or applause.
  • Don’t use a script or notes. This makes it seem like you have a mastery of the subject, and allows you to make eye contact. PowerPoint presentations are a good alternative to notes as people presume the presentation is for the audience’s benefit, rather than the speaker’s.
Manage your reputation

A good reputation is self-reinforcing, in that it can help you achieve great performance, which can in turn burnish your reputation. So building your reputation doesn’t imply dishonesty, because image creates reality.

First impressions matter

In 1988, David Schoorman studied the performance ratings of 354 clerical employees in a public sector organization.

He found that a supervisor was more likely to give a favourable rating to employees they’d had an active role in hiring than to those they’d inherited or were hired against their wishes. This effect persisted even when he controlled for objective measures of job performance.

How to get a good reputation:

  • Make a good first impression. First impressions can be quite random. People start forming impressions of others within seconds or even milliseconds, based on facial expressions, posture, voice and appearance. These first impressions tend to be enduring. If you make a bad first impression in an organisation, it’s often best to just leave instead of fighting an uphill battle to turn your reputation around. Play the law of large numbers and find an environment where you can build a great reputation.
  • Think strategically about which elements you want to highlight. No one’s good at everything. Think about which elements you want to highlight, and then work towards doing that.
  • Use the media. Build relationships with media people who can help build your reputation. One way to do this is by helping journalists do their job — send articles to publications that want content, volunteer to do interviews, etc. While it’s easier to gain media attention when you’re in power, you can start early on in your career too. For example, writing articles or blogs can be a good way to increase your visibility.
  • Get others to praise you. Touting your own abilities can make you look arrogant, plus people won’t believe your claims as much. Getting others to tout your abilities is a way around this. Even if those touting your abilities are employed by you (and even if others know this!), people will still rate you more highly.
  • Some negative information can be good. When people know some negative things about you but hire you anyway, they can become even more committed to you and they won’t hold it against you. So displaying some negative characteristics can be good, as long as they aren’t strong enough to make people pass on you.

Costs of power

It’s important to recognise the potential downsides that come with power. Each individual must weigh up the advantages of power against its costs in deciding his or her own relationship with power.

Pfeffer discusses five costs of power:

  1. Increased visibility (which has a number of sub-costs);
  2. Loss of autonomy;
  3. Time and effort;
  4. Trust issues;
  5. Withdrawal when you lose power.

Visibility and public scrutiny

Those in high-level positions are subject to constant scrutiny. Not just for job-related acts, but also what they do in their private lives. When Rudy Crew, who ran a school district, failed to bus his dishes at a self-serve restaurant, a reporter wrote about it.

Such visibility in turn creates costs:

  • It makes it harder to do your job. There’s a “social facilitation” effect which shows that people are more motivated and on edge when in the presence of others. This increased arousal improves performance on simple tasks but reduces performance on complex and novel tasks.
  • You have to spend more time managing your reputation.
  • You’ll become more risk-averse.

Loss of autonomy

When people first gain power, they find all the demands for their time flattering and agree to too many of them. They’ll then find themselves overscheduled and overworked.

Eventually, most CEOs and senior leaders learn to block out time for themselves, but all still bemoan the loss of control over their time.

Time and effort

Time spent building power is time you can’t spend on hobbies, friends and family.

The personal toll seems to be especially high for women. Men often find strong and successful women “threatening”. Moreover, research shows that being married and having children has either no effect or a positive effect on men’s careers, but tends to have a negative impact on women’s careers.

Pfeffer has heard many professional women joke that they “need a wife” to help them with their career success. This is because it’s more common for wives to contribute to their husbands’ career successes — by entertaining colleagues, taking care of routine tasks, and providing advice and support — than the other way around. [It’s likely the causal link goes the other way too, in that wives are more likely to contribute to their husbands’ careers because their husbands’ careers are more successful (because men tend to earn more). Although I recently came across this paper which found that schools are 40% more likely to call mothers than fathers. And even when fathers strongly signalled their availability, schools were still 26% more likely to call the mothers. So causality may go both ways.]

Trust issues

When you’re powerful, people want to get into your good books to advance their own careers. This makes it difficult for senior leaders to find out the truth and can cause powerful people to believe their own hype.

Powerful people must also be constantly vigilant to those who want their jobs. To survive in their job, a CEO must be able to discern who is trying to undermine them, and remove those people.

Withdrawal from power

Everyone eventually loses power. Even if you voluntarily choose to leave with more money than you could spend, the transition can be difficult. Powerful positions tend to require a high level of intensity — going from that to nothing can make you feel like you’ve lost your identity and values. For some people, this withdrawal can make them physically ill.

You’ll also lose many associations you had with people who were only interested in your companionship because of your status and power. For many successful people, this feeling of no longer being a member of the elite is a deep loss.

Losing power

Staying in a powerful position requires constant vigilance. While it’s possible to leave gracefully and make room for your successor, many people lose power for the following reasons:

  • Overconfidence and insensitivity. Power goes to people’s heads, making them overconfident and less sensitive to the rules and dynamics around them, which leads to the loss of power. Research shows it doesn’t take much power at all to induce this effect. Occasionally expose yourself to a social circle that doesn’t care about your position to try and mitigate this risk.
  • Misplaced trust. Trusting what others tell you is one way in which overconfidence can manifest. It’s generally better to look at what people do, than what they say, as actions speak louder than words.
  • Losing patience. Power comes with lots of social obligations and expectations, such as attending functions for people you don’t like. And everyone will have an opinion on how you could be doing your job better, even though most of them won’t know what they’re talking about at all. In such circumstances, it’s easy to lose your patience and lash out, but it can cost you your position.
  • Getting tired. If you’re in a powerful position but feel tired and burnt out, you might as well leave. There’ll be others all too happy to take your position. Unless you remain vigilant, you won’t be able to resist their efforts very well.
  • Failing to change. The world keeps changing, but people can fall into competency traps — they keep doing what has worked well for them in the past, even if those tactics are no longer very effective.

Moral concerns about seeking power

People often ask whether political behaviour is good for their organisation, even if it is good for them and their career. Pfeffer seems to accept that political behaviour does seem to harm organisations — higher levels of perceived politics within an organisation are associated with lower job satisfaction and morale and higher intentions to quit.

His response is two-fold:

  • Your organisation doesn’t care about you; and
  • Power and hierarchy are likely unavoidable anyway.

Your organisation doesn’t care about you

First, you shouldn’t worry about the effect of your behaviour on your organisation, because there is lots of evidence that your organisation probably doesn’t care very much about you. Even if you do everything that was expected of you, you can still lose your job because of a political power struggle or on a whim. So why should you worry about your organisation?

So don’t worry about how your efforts to build your path to power are affecting your employer, because your employer is probably not worrying about you. Neither are your coworkers or “partners,” if you happen to have any— they are undoubtedly thinking about your usefulness to them, and you will be gone, if they can manage it, when you are no longer of use.
— Jeffrey Pfeffer in Power

[I found this entire section extremely unpersuasive. While I agree that you shouldn’t care about your “organisation” per se, that’s not the right question to be asking. Your actions can still hurt people. Real, live, human beings.

Also, Pfeffer’s suggestion that your co-workers only care about your usefulness to them is too cynical, even for me. It may be true for some but, in my experience, most people don’t play the power game — or at least not very hard (which is consistent with the fact that people generally believe in the just-world hypothesis.)]

Power and hierarchy are ubiquitous

Besides, avoiding workplace politics may not be possible. In one survey of over 400 managers from a variety of companies, 93% agreed that workplace politics was common to most organisations. 89% agreed that successful executives must be good politicians.

Hierarchies and leaders emerge even in informal social settings, and research shows that hierarchical differentiation increases as the size of the group increases. Even animal societies have hierarchies — and once hierarchy exists, animals will naturally compete to move up and avoid being on the bottom.

[But even if politics is ubiquitous, not all political actions are equally moral. When people argue that “playing the power game” is not morally wrong, or is unavoidable, they tend to lump a lot of things under the “playing the power game” label. Which is, frankly, kinda lazy.]

Other Interesting Points

  • One study of 1,000 resumes found that there were substantial misstatements on more than 40%. [I wanted to look this study up but unfortunately, Pfeffer does not provide a reference. (He only cites his earlier book, What Were They Thinking?)]
  • When Winston Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister, he was 65 years old and had been out of power for 10 years.
  • A study examining how stock prices react to a CEO announcement found that in 17 of 20 cases where a former General Electric executive became CEO of another company, the reaction was positive, with an average gain of $1.1 billion of market capitalisation on the day of the announcement.
  • We seem to prefer markets and democracies for societies, and dictatorial-like arrangements inside organisations and companies. Though many studies have shown that delegated decision-making produces better results, power inside companies has not devolved over the last 50 years.

My Thoughts

A friend recommended this book to me as a much more practical guide to power, compared to The 48 Laws of Power or The Prince. That was certainly true. Power is mostly a “how to” book, but Pfeffer also mixes in a fair bit of research and theory in an attempt explain why his advice will work.

However, I think the theory is often more nuanced than Pfeffer portrays, because power is such a complex topic and the book is ambitious in its breadth. Any single topic — personal qualities, networking, reputation — could’ve been enough to form a book in itself. For example, I had some misgivings about the sections on intelligence and likability. The logic was shaky and it conflicted with other stuff I’d read (which seemed to be better-cited). But Pfeffer only spends like 2-3 pages on it.

Much of the advice sounds rather obvious when you read it, but it can still be helpful to have people spell things out for you. Pfeffer also includes some less-conventional titbits — I particularly enjoyed:

  • people like to believe flattery because otherwise they’ll have to think negatively of both themselves and you;
  • lists make you seem authoritative, like you’ve thought things through carefully;
  • first impressions are somewhat random so you should try out different environments until you find one where you can build a great reputation;
  • headhunters often use the number of people who report to you as a proxy for power (which is one reason why some bullshit jobs may exist).

Pfeffer’s writing style is generally clear and straightforward, but one criticism I have is that the structure of the book is rather messy at times. Pfeffer himself comes off reasonably balanced — there were several times when I thought of an objection or counterargument to something, and a couple of paragraphs later he’d address it. I also appreciated how Pfeffer explicitly addressed the costs of power and the morality of seeking power (unlike Robert Greene), though I still felt unpersuaded by his arguments.

It’s interesting — I don’t consider myself very power-hungry. Past a certain point, the costs of obtaining power usually seem to outweigh the benefits. However, I find power fascinating from a sociological perspective. Seeing the world through a power lens can be rather eye-opening. Overall, I came away from this book thinking that it’s good to be aware of power dynamics and how your actions will affect your level of power, but that doesn’t mean you should play the game too hard.

What did you think of my summary of Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer? Has it given you food for thought in your career? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Buy Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

If you enjoyed this summary of Power, you may also like:

3 thoughts on “Book Summary: Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

  1. This is a great summary, thanks.

    Like you, I’m interested in this from a sociological perspective, but I think it’s worth thinking about from a “if I wanted marginally more power, what are simple things I could do” perspective, as well.

    I’d forgotten about the seven personal qualities exercise:
    Empathy with others
    Conflict tolerance

    My self-assessment is an average of 3.7.

    If you’re willing to share, what’s your self-assessment average?

    Pfeffer is quite analytical, as you’d expect from a professor who has written a book. But one thing I kept wondering is whether there’s a “born with it” element. Some of the most powerful people I’ve met I don’t think are particularly analytical. They do things mentioned in the book instinctively.

    It would have been interesting if he’d had worked examples of people who took a very analytical perspective on how to gather power, vs people who just instinctively did the right things. Perhaps he does and I’ve forgotten from when I read it a couple of years ago. Perhaps the guy who took notes after every meeting was doing it analytically.

    1. My self-assessment average came out to 3.3. The first two were my lowest.

      I do think these things come more naturally to some people than to others. But I also agree with Pfeffer that there are ways you can obtain more power, even for those who aren’t naturals at it. I can think of three more “analytical” examples Pfeffer gave. One was a student who, after hearing how Keith Ferrazzi asked to have dinner with the boss, tried it himself. Another was a woman who identified an “acting up” opportunity after reading the book and simply applied for it (the implication being she wouldn’t normally have put herself forward for it). And a third was of a college student who tried to employ some of his suggestions in a student committee setting, and discovered she quite enjoyed playing the power game.

      However, these weren’t examples of people who rose to the very top in politics or large organisations (I mean, maybe they eventually did, who knows). I suspect natural inclination and ability may play more of a role when you look at the “very top”. I also think very powerful people often learn by watching other powerful people. If they did it from a young age (e.g. watching their parents), that could look “natural” even if it isn’t innate.

  2. My lowest were energy and conflict tolerance.

    Good point on emulation. I assumed it was predominantly innate, but I suppose another thing is that you adopt a pattern of behaviour because you’ve seen others doing it, and even though you don’t know why it works, it does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.