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Podcast Transcript: Acting with Power by Deborah Gruenfeld

Deborah Gruenfeld
Series: 

Rebecca Lewis:

Welcome to the everywomanBookClub. I’m Rebecca Lewis and I’ll be your host for this series, introducing you to a fresh new bookshelf, packed with inspirational, thought-provoking and challenging new titles. In each podcast, I’ll be unravelling the details with our authors, exploring their themes and how they relate to women in the workplace and the wider world. We’ll also be giving you a chance to put your own questions to each of our authors in live Q&As streamed regularly on the everywomanNetwork. So keep an eye on everywoman.com/bookclub for invitations to this exclusive content.

Now onto my guest for today, Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, author of Acting With Power. A leading social psychologist, she has taught courses on power and leadership at Stanford Graduate School of Business for nearly 20 years. She says we all have more power than we realise, and what counts is not how much we have, but what we do with it, even if what we’re really doing is acting. Like actors, we all make choices about how we play our various power roles, and we can all become more successful and the best possible versions of ourselves in any role, on any stage, in this theatre of life. It’s intriguing stuff. Welcome Professor Gruenfeld from sunny California. How are you?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

I’m very well. Thank you so much for having me!

 

Rebecca Lewis:

No, thank you! And I have to admit I struggled a little bit to whittle the book down to those few lines of introduction because it really is absolutely packed with data, with studies, but also your personal anecdotes about power. Because like I say, you’ve been studying this for over two decades. So, I’m wondering, why this book now? Why did the time feel right?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

It does cover a lot of ground and I think you know it’s actually very hard to write a book on power even though I’ve been thinking about it for such a long time, because it is such a central, organising force in all of human life, and I think, you know, over the years doing research on power, most of my research in the lab has looked at when and why people use power badly and I think that’s been the narrative for such a long time. We think of power as a dirty word. We tend to imagine kind of corrupt power holders using all their leverage to self-enhance and serve their own interests. And I just think that those ideas about power have a kind of reinforcing quality to them. They create norms and expectations that perpetuate I think the worst aspects of what power’s like. So, I just thought, you know, it’s time for some new ideas about power. The dark side of power is just one aspect of how power operates in social life. And what I really wanted to do was to write a book that would change the narrative about power and make the idea of having power and using power more attractive to a wider range of people. And to help people to get in touch with the leverage that they have in their lives so that they can use it better for good.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

But you confess though that you haven’t always been comfortable with your own power.

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

Of course!

 

Rebecca Lewis:

That even while you’ve been teaching MBA students and you know coaching these high-profile leaders. But it was a lightbulb moment for you when you had some training with an actor and you realised that it was about playing a role better. So, tell me a bit more about that.

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

What I realised when I started taking acting classes and working with actors and directors is that, you know, the beautiful thing about roles which come with power and status is that they define who we are to other people and they define our responsibilities to other people. And I think when we think of power in the absence of roles like in the absence of being a parent or, you know, a leader, or being a teacher, or being the boss or the head of a country...when you think about power in the absence of those roles it just looks like a way to get more for yourself. But once you can see it as part of a system that’s designed to advance group causes and once you can see your power as coming with responsibilities and specific expectations about how to behave, you realise when you start to see power as part of a role, that it’s expected of you and that using your power is a generous act. We’ve all been in those situations where the person in charge doesn’t take the reins and it creates anxiety and insecurity for everyone; it tends to bring out the worst in everyone when there’s a power vacuum at the top, everyone tries to get up there. I realised that to own my power and authority and to use it in a way that makes life better for the rest of my community or my class room or my family is really the most generous thing I can do, so yeah it really changed everything for me.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

You mentioned bosses there and I think it’s fair to say you’ve had some awful boss experiences in terms of how they use their power! The one who flossed his teeth during your 121. The one who made you dive into a swimming pool to retrieve a stick that he’d just thrown in. But you still insist that we all have more power even in our relationship with our boss than we might realise. So, for anyone listening who’s in a professional relationship where they just feel that all the power lies with the other party – the boss or another leader – how would you convince them of that?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

So, for the subordinate who has a difficult boss, I think we experience fear in the presence of very powerful people and it leads us to lose sight of the fact that we are also powerful in our relationships. One of the things I think is so interesting when we think about it is if you think of your boss as holding all the cards and yourself as someone dependent on them, you miss the truth of the situation which is that all of our relationships only work when they fulfil both party’s needs. And so, what that means is even your boss, even the person who has the power to evaluate you and decide your pay and whether you get promoted and give you annoying tasks or whatever, that person is also dependent on you and that gives you power in the relationships. So, we often act as though we have no choices when we’re dealing with a difficult boss but in fact we often have more power than we think we do especially to the extent that we might have options to that one relationship. So, if we can make ourselves irreplaceable we have a lot more power with our bosses than we think we do, and if we have options and we can leave and seek employment elsewhere this also gives us leverage.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Interesting. And you mention dependents there. So, I’m an only child but I’m a mother of two quite young children, who, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but they have far more power over me than is probably healthy.

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

It’s normal!

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Is it? Good! I’m fascinated by this idea of how birth order and childhood experiences can impact our relationships with power as adults. You touch on this in the book and you write that we need to ‘put our inner children to bed’ to use our power more appropriately. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

The comment you made about your children is the perfect example of why the people in the low power roles in relationships are not powerless. We as parents have the need to... we want our children to survive, we also want our children to validate our competence as parents and so we end up not using all the power we have because they have power over us. There are at least two different ways to use power. There are people who use it to satisfy selfish interests and there are people who use it to solve other people’s problems, let’s say. And there’s been a lot of research that’s tried to identify which kinds of people are likely to use power in more or less pro-social ways. And there’s an interesting finding which is that birth order affects how responsible people are when in positions of power so some of these studies have looked at United States Presidents for example and found that first born children tend to use power in adulthood more responsibly with less corruption and less scandal than only children or the youngest children in families.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Oh wow!

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

Yeah! The idea is that when you’re the first-born child you learn, you’re socialised at a very young age to be aware of other people’s needs and to recognise that your needs don’t always come first. As a first-born child or older sibling, you can’t go to the park because the baby’s taking a nap or you have to wait your turn because the 2-year-old is having a tantrum and you learn from a very young age that part of what comes with being the more capable, more competent family member, the more powerful member in some ways, part of what comes with that is the ability to put other people’s needs first, to take care of people who are more vulnerable than you are. So, people have argued that when you grow up in the system knowing from a very young age that your privileged positions as the more powerful person makes you responsible for the care of people who are more vulnerable than you are, that then translates into the way we use power in adulthood. What’s very interesting about that too, is that the studies show that although men and women are equally interested in power, women are also less likely to use power in corrupt and selfish ways than men are. Women are a safer bet often when it comes to putting people in positions of power. And the argument is the same as the one we just used for birth order which is that women are also typically socialised, they grow up learning from a young age that their job is to put others first and take care of other people and this sense of responsibility is internalised at a younger age for women and that just makes them more responsible with power.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

You mentioned presidents there. I have to ask now. Do we know what birth order President Trump came in in his family?[i]

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

Oh my Gosh. We know what the theory would predict, let’s put it that way!

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Yes, exactly! You mentioned there about female leaders and I wanted to talk about Imposter Syndrome. Because we know it’s something a lot of women suffer with, not just women, but it does seem to resonate particularly with women. And the conventional advice about overcoming Imposter Syndrome has been ‘fake it until you make it’. But you kind of reframe this in your book, you call Imposter Syndrome a sort of ‘stage fright’ and you describe it as the anxiety we feel in the gap between the role we know we should be playing and how we really feel about ourselves. So, I’m curious, if ‘faking it’ isn’t the answer, then what is the solution for overcoming Imposter Syndrome?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

It’s a huge source of angst in almost every professional person that I’ve met. And it tends to strike especially when we’re transitioning into a bigger role. There’s this idea again that you have a sense of yourself as capable in your current station in life, maybe capable or maybe not, but the idea of moving onto a bigger stage, having more power, being viewed as more important, as more expert. The key to overcoming all of these subconscious kind of tics that we have about how we’re being evaluated is to very purposefully move our attention off of ourselves. Worrying about being authentic or whether you’re coming across as authentic is just a conversation that you’re having with yourself. It’s like, “Could I do that”, “Would I do that?”, “I can’t believe I just did that!”, “People must know I didn’t mean that!”. It’s a conversation you’re having with yourself, you’re stuck in your head. Instead of worrying about whether you’re being authentic or not, try to see yourself through others’ eyes. Try to consider that whether you feel like a big shot or not, in reality the people around you may very well see you that way. And so the best way to overcome Imposter Syndrome is to acknowledge that and do your best to live up to their expectations. It’s amazing because once you can shift your focus off yourself and focus on whether you’re taking care of the people around you and whether they feel secure, and showing up in a way that say “Yes I’m the person in charge, I’m the expert in the room, I’ve got this!” – that makes it much easier for them to just relax and do their jobs as well.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

That’s great advice. A big part of the book is you talking about how we play our power ‘up’, which is when we are trying to be the biggest person in the room, the loudest person, with all the power. And then there’s playing our power ‘down’, which is when we’re being more collaborative, or we’re using our power in a more understated way. Interrupting people is an example of how you can play your power up and we all know how that feels, it doesn’t feel good when someone is talking over us in meetings. And you get asked about this a lot, for advice on how you can handle it and your advice on this is really interesting. You call it the perspective shift: Can you tell us a bit more about that?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

There are two kind of knee jerk reactions to being interrupted or talked over. One is to immediately back off and avoid having a fight for air time, which I think is not a bad approach in many situations. The other is to raise our voices and to try to shout out or drown out the other person and kind of win the battle for who can be the loudest and maintain the floor, and that’s a risky strategy too because often people who interrupt us are not interested in backing off, so things escalate and you just don’t know if you can win that contest against them. Going back to your children, you have to pick your battles. You have to know which you’re going to win and it’s the same in organisational life. Most power contests are won and lost in the non-verbal arena and so there are options to go in silent which I think can be much more powerful. I often advise people when they’re being interrupted to just raise their hands. Not like raising your hand in a classroom but raising your hand sort of toward the person who’s interrupting you as if to say “stop”, or “I’m not finished”, and it’s amazing to me how a non-verbal gesture like raising your hand will often shut people down immediately. Somehow, it’s unexpected. It’s a little bit aggressive but it’s not over the top. So, I often advise people to go with the non-verbal route. There’s a second part of this which I think is so important and it really has to do with whether you’re most likely to win this type of battle when you’re trying to protect your own right to speak, versus making a point of making sure other people have the right to speak and to finish speaking. You always earn status and other people’s respect when you protect someone else’s rights; someone else is being talked over and you say “Can you just wait a minute, I wanted to hear what she was saying”. You always win points for that. I think people trust others who will use their own social capital to protect someone else much more than those who take risks to defend themselves.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Absolutely!

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

If someone who interrupts is allowed to interrupt they’ll keep interrupting! But if you can stop someone from interrupting someone else you may shut the whole thing down so that you’re not in the same position of having to defend yourself. If you look at how power works in the natural world, in humans but also in animal groups, what you can see is that power has a social purpose. It’s not allocated to specific individuals so that they can advance their own interests; we give people power by deferring to them and we do it in hopes that they’ll use those privileges and advantages to protect all of us. So, I think it’s really important for people to think of power in that way, which is that the best way to use power, the best way to feel powerful, the best way to advance your own standing, is to take personal risks to protect other people.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

But you talked about deferring there and obviously sometimes we have to say “no” and saying “no” to someone who on the surface has more power than us like a boss or a manager, that can be really hard to do. You say that you’ve learned to say “no” ‘in many languages’. Which I’m loving the sound of this. Tell me a bit more about this, the ways you can say “no”.

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

I have to confess and it’s probably obvious, you don’t get to a place where you’re studying power for your whole life and you’re writing books about it if these things have not been huge challenges for you. These are all things I’ve learned, none of it came naturally to me. So, a couple of things I’ve learned. One is that I advise particularly young women I work with to develop a kind of practice for dealing with requests and invitations, which is to never respond immediately in the moment because there’s often too much pressure especially in a situation where you feel like you have less power and status than the person who’s making the request is, to say “Let me just think about that and I’ll get back to you”, so you can get your wits about you and make decisions about whether you actually want to agree or not, which is sometimes hard to know in the moment, so that’s one thing. And then the other thing is that I think we often are fearful of saying “no” because we think it’s going to come across as unfriendly and alienate people or be hostile or somehow too sort of assertive maybe. I think the thing I’ve come around to is that it’s possible to say “no” in a very friendly way! And in a way that protects your boundaries and protects your right to make decisions for yourself about what you’re willing to do and you can do it in a way that doesn’t have to be overly aggressive. I find often that I’ll say to people “You know I love you and you know I love to work with you but I’m not going to say yes to this one”. So, I find it easier personally to say “no” when I’m making an effort to just remind the person that I’m disappointing that I care about them and I care about the relationship. I remind them of those things at the same time, but then very unapologetically, without leaving room for discussion, tell them that I’m not interested.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

I like that: ‘Without leaving room for discussion’. Yep, definitely need to work on that one! I like this idea about joining a posse, about creating power in numbers as a way to create change. Obviously the #MeToo movement is a great example of this. Was it as powerful as it could have been or how could it have been more powerful?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

I think on the plus side there has been a moment where things have shifted to the extent that it’s not considered acceptable to make unwanted sexual advances toward women who have less power than you do at work. I think it’s hard to look back and remember that there was a time when that was just business as usual. And I think that’s a big part of what made it difficult to speak up about it. And I do feel like that’s changed. I do feel that many of men that I talk with about this are more self-aware, more careful, more interested and curious actually about where the boundaries are. So, I do think that has changed and that’s a very good development. In order for these systems to really change there has to be more women in power. I mean it’s just, you know, a fact of life. And because of all the history and the stereotypes, the implicit bias against women, the tendency to see power in men more naturally than in women, which I think is also a bias and an error, the only way to get more women into positions of power I believe is for the rest of us to make that happen and anybody who cares about it. People elevate people into positions of power. It’s a force that comes from underneath or from above. It’s not just like a person propels themselves forward. For women especially I just think it’s very important for people to recognise that the stereotypes about women, the barriers that women face in terms of getting ahead in organisations, these things can’t change until we see women as capable of holding power and building power in the same ways that men do, and the only way to make that happen is to channel some of our efforts towards helping other women advance.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

You talk about how we’ve almost typecast leaders as these very masculine, very dominant figures which is almost a self-fulfilling thing because if that’s how we imagine leaders should be, those are the kind of leaders that we will make leaders. At the end of your book is almost a rallying cry for us to change that and do exactly what you just said – enable more women to fit that mould. You talk about a more caring and responsible and nurturing type of power. Before we finish I wanted to ask you something about the current situation that we’re in. You write that when people use power well it doesn’t make news and I guess your point there is that we’re much more likely to hear about abuses of power than we are the more positive side. And I just wonder if that perspective has shifted slightly in terms of the Covid-19 crisis. We’re seeing a lot of discussion about what effective leadership is and female political leaders in particular are getting a lot of really positive analysis about how they’re handling the situation. I wonder what your observations have been around all of that and whether that might help us as a society to help us evolve our understanding of power and what it can be?

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

I’m so glad you brought that. Yep, I do think it’s a really interesting moment for paying attention to how power works and what the options are. Based on what I said earlier in terms of knowing that women tend to think of power more in a pro-social way, as a responsibility to take care of other people than men do on average according to the research. It shouldn’t surprise us that these are the leaders who are coming into the forefront right now. It is a very different model. There are people who approach power as like a prize or an accomplishment or some type of indicator of their value as people and so they’ll push as hard as they can to get ahead as quickly as they can and being in the spotlight as much as they possibly can. There are people who think of power more as a duty and I think that these women during this crisis are an example of this type of thing which is that they’re kind of toiling in the background, they’re the kind of leaders that make sure bad things don’t happen – we never see them! They’re just back in the background making sure that things are running well, that workplaces are safe, that countries are safe, that decisions are being made that take the greatest interests of the greatest number into account, so we don’t hear about it. But in this moment because it’s been such an interesting time to just be able to contrast how in response to the same pandemic and the same crisis, different leaders have approached it differently and with any luck it will have an impact going forward on how we think about what are the necessary requirements that are requisite to when we’re thinking about putting a person in a position of power with a ton of responsibility. What kinds of qualities and characteristics are we looking for? But you can see in this context in the pandemic, how important it is to be a person who knows how to use power responsibility and is maybe a little more risk averse potentially, who thinks first maybe not about how their decisions are going to affect their political viability, but how their positions are going to affect the livelihood of the people who rely on them.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

Absolutely, and I think that’s a perfect and very thought-provoking place to leave our conversation today. Thank you Professor Gruenfeld for joining us. It’s been fascinating. And best of luck with the book.

 

Professor Gruenfeld:

Thank you so much; I’ve enjoyed it.

 

Rebecca Lewis:

We hope you enjoyed this episode of everywomanBookClub. If you’re not already a member of the everywomanNetwork, you can join today to accept your invitation to take part in our live online Q&As where you can put your own questions to our authors from wherever you are in the world. Membership of the everywomanNetwork also gives you access to tons of content designed to help you advance your career, from webinars and podcasts with inspirational female role models, to workbooks, quizzes and lots more. 

 


[i] Editor’s note: President Trump is the second youngest of five siblings.