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Acting with Power

Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe

By Deborah Gruenfeld
15-minute read
Audio available
Acting with Power by Deborah Gruenfeld

Acting with Power (2020) takes the mystery out of power by breaking down what it actually is and how to use it effectively wherever we find ourselves. Borrowing techniques from the field of acting, these blinks also detail how to cope when we feel nervous or unprepared for powerful roles, or when we desire more power than we’ve been given.

  • Anyone who wants to wield power more effectively
  • People who are curious about power dynamics
  • Students of social psychology

Deborah Gruenfeld is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she co-directs the Executive Program for Women Leaders. For over 25 years, her research, writing, and teaching have been focused on the psychology of power, and she’s been featured in academic journals and publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. She’s also the co-author of Stress in the American Workplace.

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Acting with Power

Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe

By Deborah Gruenfeld
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Acting with Power by Deborah Gruenfeld
Synopsis

Acting with Power (2020) takes the mystery out of power by breaking down what it actually is and how to use it effectively wherever we find ourselves. Borrowing techniques from the field of acting, these blinks also detail how to cope when we feel nervous or unprepared for powerful roles, or when we desire more power than we’ve been given.

Key idea 1 of 9

Power is the role we play in other people’s lives, and we all have it in one way or another.

High status, impressive wealth, and the authority of a title. This is what we tend to think of when we hear the word “power.” We believe that the people who have these things are automatically powerful, but this isn’t quite true.

People with status, money, or the right title can be powerful, but so can those with none of these things. For example, someone about to drive out of a full parking lot isn’t powerful on their own. But the minute someone else pulls up, eagerly waiting to take the parking spot, the first driver suddenly has power. If he wants to, he can delay the newcomer by being in no rush to leave.

What this scene shows us is that power isn’t about what we have. It’s got more to do with social relationships, and how much we can control other people and their circumstances at any given time.

The key message here is: Power is the role we play in other people’s lives, and we all have it in one way or another.

Whether relationships are professional, personal, or just with whoever happens to be nearby, they force us to depend on each other. This means that everyone has power, even if it looks or feels like they don’t.

Take a parent-child relationship, for example. A parent can make decisions for the child and tell her what to do, making the parent powerful. But if the parent wants love and respect from their child – which most parents do – then the ability to give or withhold these means that the child has some power, too.

Work settings provide another example. Bosses have power because they can determine who works on which projects and how much people get paid. But an employee who’s great at her job and highly sought after in the industry has the power to negotiate.

Now, a boss can decide to use his power solely for his own benefit. For instance, he could hand over a heavy workload to a subordinate who can’t say no. But this isn’t what power is for.

Socially and in the workplace, hierarchies and power dynamics help people work together for mutual benefit and to solve shared problems. This means that when thinking about how to use the power we have, we shouldn’t be asking “What’s in it for me?” We should consider how we can help other people instead.

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