How we gain power by giving it away and why power corrupts

Book review of Dacher Keltner: The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (Penguin Press, May 17, 2016)

by Christopher Baan

The antidote to Machiavelli

When you say ‘power’, to many, the work of Machiavelli comes to mind, as do the many abuses of power: authoritarianism, cunning, ruthless and coercive force, violence and manipulation. Think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Or in a less extreme sense, we think of power as achieving fame, status, and money. These narratives of power make for great stories and movies – think of Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or Game of Thrones, or more classically, Macbeth or Julius Caesar.

Machiavellian thinking – ‘it is better to be feared than loved’ – has deeply influenced our current society, politics, leadership and management, even though we live in a completely different society now than the society that Machiavelli observed 500 years ago. The Power Paradox explains how our understanding that power comes from coercive force “cannot make sense of many important changes in human history.”

This groundbreaking book has a clear message: influence comes not from those who are ruthless, but those who are socially intelligent, empathetic and generous. In that sense his research is the complete antidote to Machiavelli: power can be seen as something benevolent – it’s about making a difference in the world. Power is actually given to those who can advance the greater good. But the paradox lies in this: once people gain power, they develop a certain state of mind, a dopamine high, that shifts their attention from a focus on others to a focus on themselves and their own desires, leading to their own demise on the long term and at the cost of the greater good.

We can counter this paradox by consciously practicing four things:

  1. Empathy: continuously focus on the interests, needs and feelings of others
  2. Generosity: share what you receive from others – money, time, respect, knowledge – generously
  3. Expressing gratitude: realize that most of the privileges were given to you; realize who you have depended upon to get to where you are now. Express your gratitude to the people around you.
  4. Telling stories that unite: focus on common or shared goals and talk about it with others.

The author Dacher Keltner structures his book around the following 20 ‘power principles’, which are explained in much more detail and supported with broad evidence from his research. 

What is power? Power is about making a difference in the world.

Principle 1. Power is about altering the states of others.

Principle 2. Power is part of every relationship and interaction.

Principle 3. Power is found in everyday interactions.

Principle 4. Power comes from empowering others in social networks.

How does power develop? Power is given, not grabbed.

Principle 5. Groups give power to those who advance the greater good.

Principle 6. Groups construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence.

Principle 7. Groups reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem.

Principle 8. Groups punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip.

Where does power come from? Enduring power comes from a focus on others.

Principle 9. Enduring power comes from empathy. (Assess yourself and take the empathy and emotional intelligence test on the Greater Good website)

Principle 10. Enduring power comes from giving.

Principle 11. Enduring power comes from expressing gratitude.

Principle 12. Enduring power comes from telling stories that unite.

How and why do we lose power?

Lord Acton’s maxim ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a well-known expression. Keltner provides much nuance, scientific evidence and many examples of this saying. Power corrupts in four ways:

The Abuses of Power

Principle 13. Power leads to empathy deficits and diminished moral sentiments.

Principle 14. Power leads to self-serving impulsivity.

Principle 15. Power leads to incivility and disrespect.

Principle 16. Power leads to narratives of exceptionalism.

The author illustrates this with a test done on disrespectful and uncivil driving behavior – violating the rules of the road – by people driving a range of cars from cheap to expensive. The people driving the more expensive cars, most likely more powerful, systematically displayed more incivility, disrespectful behavior than the ones driving cheaper cars.

Power abuse also comes at a price to the group or community over which power is executed.

“The abuse of power is costly in every imaginable way, from declining trust in the community to compromised performance at work to poor health. By contrast, when individuals use their power to advance the greater good, they and the people whom they empower will be happier, healthier, and more productive.”

When one person abuses power, others become powerless. The price of powerlessness

Principle 17. Powerlessness involves facing environments of continual threat.

Principle 18. Stress defines the experience of powerlessness.

Principle 19. Powerlessness undermines the individual’s ability to contribute to society.

Principle 20. Powerlessness causes poor health. 

The key to enduring power and overcoming the power paradox

According to the author: “Stay focused on other people. Prioritize others’ interests as much as your own. Bring the good in others to completion, and do not bring the bad in others to completion. Take delight in the delights of others, as they make a difference in the world.”

Keltner poses that all people have a basic aspiration and need to make a difference in the world, to have some sense of power or ‘empowerment’, because the experience of power can be a source of meaning and a central guiding force for finding your unique purpose in life.

The author concludes with a five-fold path to enduring power:

  1. Be aware of your feelings of power
  2. Practice humility
  3. Stay focused on others, and give
  4. Practice respect
  5. Change the psychological context of powerlessness

Personal Reflections and Relevance

The Power Paradox is fundamentally a hopeful book. Reading it, I realized that power does not have to be a ‘dirty’ word, like some suggest. On the contrary, it convinced me as a reader that everyone can be powerful and that it is essential for every human being to overcome powerlessness and feeling powerful, to have their needs met, to make a difference in the world and thus to find and live their purpose in life. It shows how empathy, generosity and gratitude are crucial and proven ingredients for advancing ‘good power’.

To me this idea resonates deeply. Power can be used for good or for bad, but is itself a neutral concept. I have always believed that humans are fundamentally good, that we want the best not only for ourselves, but for the people around us as well. And now there is increasing scientific evidence for this idea. We are not born dividing, coercing or manipulating, but our traumas, past experiences or culture have shaped some of us that way. And there are practical ways of becoming powerful by developing our full potential for the common good.

Besides, Keltner’s childhood story of growing up among the ‘powerless’ resonated with me. Growing up myself in a ‘warm bath’ of a middle class protected family, we didn’t grow up particularly wealthy, but my father, being a local priest, did enjoy influence in the community of followers and members by gathering, counseling, supporting and inspiring its people. Friends and classmates were both from families much less off and much wealthier, and I often found myself as an observer or middleman in between these polar opposites. Today, I often find myself in a role similar to that of my father, albeit non-religious, being passionate about serving and empowering the people around me, and serving the common good.

The insights shared in The Power Paradox are more relevant and timely than ever. With millions of people feeling powerless, they become ripe and ready targets for radical political movements, extremists, and authoritarian or self-serving leaders. Large majorities of employees worldwide feel disengaged (read: powerless) in their current work and lack a sense of purpose. The abuse of power is widely visible in this world and costs are immense. What might it look like if we create organizations where everyone is powerful? (hint: also read Frederic Laloux’ Reinventing Organizations for a compelling vision on the latter question).

And what can each and every one of us do to advance the greater good and to empower ourselves and others in the process?

About the author

Dacher Keltner, whose research on emotions informed the Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’, has studied the phenomenon of power for decades. Keltner is a professor of psychology and the director of the Greater Good Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Influenced by strong experiences in his formative years of moving to poorer neighborhoods and witnessing the consequences of powerlessness, Keltner became fascinated with questions of poverty, status, race, inequality and gender, and why certain people rise to power while others stay in the shadows of powerlessness.

Reflection and coaching questions

Based on the book, I formulated some reflection questions that might help you apply the theory to your own context.

  • What behavior do you find yourself doing or not doing that enhances your power? (e.g. practicing empathy, generosity, expressing gratitude, telling stories that unite).
  • What behavior do you find yourself doing or not doing that compromises your capacity for power? (e.g. displaying self-serving impulsivity, lack of empathy, compassion, or moral sentiments, disrespect, narratives of exceptionalism).
  • If you look at your current social context (partner, colleagues, friends, social status) to what extend do you feel powerful? (on a range of 1-10, where 1 is utterly powerless and 10 is completely powerful).
  • At moments when you feel powerful, do you recognize some of the ‘traps’ you may fall into? (self-serving impulsivity, lack of empathy, compassion, or moral sentiments, disrespect, narratives of exceptionalism). To what extend are you aware of your feelings of power in those moments?
  • What habits might you want to develop to cultivate enduring power and to support practicing the ‘five-fold path’?