Why We Are More Powerful than We Are

Understand power and use it confidently in any role that’s what I learned from “Acting With Power” by Deborah Gruenfeld .

Power is often viewed as mysterious and reserved for people who are either specially gifted or ruthlessly determined. But power exists in all relationships.

Because we depend on each other in different ways, we all have some degree of control over other people’s circumstances. And while we can be self-serving in how we use our power; everyone is better off when our aim is to help others or to achieve a common goal.

From stepping into an unfamiliar role and changing things from the top-down, to choosing between taking up space or being unassuming, This article provide guidelines on how to embody a powerful role, just like a seasoned actor taking the stage.

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.

Playing power up is best used to protect the interests of others.

Imagine you’re taking an improv acting class and you’re asked to play a powerful character. How would you do it?

Most people would try to take control by raising their voices, interrupting other characters, and swaggering around the stage. This assertive behavior is called playing power up and actors use it often. It’s their way of getting people on and off the stage to respect their character.

Playing power up doesn’t only happen in theaters and acting classes, though. People do it at work, at home, and in many other social situations. The problem is that they don’t always do it for the right reasons.

The key message here is: Playing power up is best used to protect the interests of others.

In the real world, playing power up is a way of asserting power over others and commanding respect. And there are different ways of doing this.

Most often, it’s by pulling rank. People enforce rules or get others to comply by emphasizing their authority. For example, Henry Ford reportedly silenced employees who questioned him by saying, “My name is on the building.” It’s hard to argue with that!

It’s also hard to argue when someone with power says no, interrupts you, or ignores you completely. Similarly, someone with power can freely judge subordinates by making fun of them, complimenting them, or criticizing them. Even if subordinates don’t like it, they can’t complain because they don’t have the power.

Playing power up can be arrogant or aggressive if you do it purely to assert your dominance or to intimidate others. But when people need someone to take charge or make difficult decisions, playing power up is exactly the right approach.

Think of a leader who interrupts the most talkative person in a meeting so that other people can share their insights, or one who uses her right to say no to keep a project on track and under budget. Asserting power in these situations benefits the team. Studies even show that powerholders who do this are competent and caring.

So, whenever you’re tempted to play power up, first ask yourself if it’s in the best interests of those around you, or only for show. Based on the answer, you’ll know how to act.

Playing power down is a way to connect to people and earn their trust.

Once again, the acting coach wants to see a powerful character on stage. Except this time the character shouldn’t dominate the scene.

Strange, right? Well, not to an experienced actor.

As we’ve just learned, playing power up can be an effective way to demonstrate power and command respect. But it’s not the only way to inhabit a powerful role.

Instead of putting a character’s power on display, actors sometimes do the opposite and play power down. This means deliberately trying to seem less powerful, perhaps by not talking as much or by disappearing into the background. Just like playing power up, playing power down has its uses on stage and in real life.

The key message here is: Playing power down is a way to connect to people and earn their trust.

When those with power downplay it, they try to appear less intimidating and less worthy of attention than they really are.

People do this by, for example, making fun of themselves, letting others make decisions, or asking for approval or help. These actions diminish the powerful person, whilst elevating the knowledge and opinions of those around them.

Now, if power is the ability to control people and make things happen, why would anyone choose not to play power up? One reason is that playing power down can be a way of people-pleasing or passing the buck. But this isn’t how this tactic should be used.

Playing power down is how leaders show a willingness to connect with people, and not just control them. It’s a way of showing that those in power are more concerned with working together than with maintaining status. This disarms people and encourages trust, as two partners at the top venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, discovered.

When trying to recruit a young female CEO, their first instinct was to use the power and perks attached to the firm. This failed, so they decided to play their power down. After learning that their prospective hire loved dressing up as comic book characters, they met her dressed in Toy Story costumes. Seeing these high-powered men looking so ridiculous on her account showed the CEO that they would do anything to make her comfortable. She joined the team on the spot!

Using imagination, props, and costumes is an effective way to embody a new role.

Picture this: after years of paying your dues, you’ve finally been promoted to senior manager. Suddenly, you must guide a team and the higher-ups expect you to challenge them if necessary. But even though you’ve been working hard for this promotion, you’re not sure you’re ready for it. After all, you don’t feel anything like a senior manager.

This situation is a lot like what happens when an actor is cast in a new role. They’re given scripts and storylines to learn, and must fully embody the role, however unfamiliar it feels. Luckily, actors have a few tricks to help them get into character, and these can work for you, too.

The key message here is: Using imagination, props, and costumes is an effective way to embody a new role.

Succeeding in a new role requires behaving in ways that might seem out of the ordinary. One-way actors do this convincingly is through a version of the Stanislavski Method, the brainchild of Russian actor, producer, and director Konstantin Stanislavski.

Stanislavski encouraged actors to see the world from their characters’ perspectives, both on and off the stage. Following his advice, many actors imagine the things happening to their characters “as if” they’re happening to them. This is known as The Magic If exercise, and it came in handy for the author when she had to maintain her composure as a witness in court.

Although she felt vulnerable, the author focused on a TV character who was the very definition of strong and fearless. The author imagined how she would dress and carry herself if she was that character. Doing so helped her overcome her fears and act with the confidence the defense team expected.

So, the next time you don’t feel ready for a new role, imagine how you would behave if you were exactly who and what that role demanded.

Another actor’s trick is using costumes and props to get into the right mindset for a role. Dressing differently and carrying props affects how people behave and how others respond to them.

For instance, a senior executive might walk around with an important-looking notebook, or dress in a way that makes him feel more confident. In fact, clothes have such an effect that the phrase “suit up” is now widely used to describe preparing for an important task.

To play a supporting role well, prioritize the work and the team’s mission.

What comes to mind when you imagine a career as an actor? If it’s top billing in every production, you’re not alone. Most people want to be the star of the show – the important one with more power than anyone else.

But we can’t all play the lead, just like we can’t all be the boss at work. Instead, we have separate roles: for leading actors and supporting cast, and for managers and subordinates.

For these settings to work as they should, everyone – including the supporting players – must play their role. This gives those in supporting roles power of their own, and using that power well means knowing how to nail the part.

The key message here is: To play a supporting role well, prioritize the work and the team’s mission.

In any group or organization, there’s usually a big-picture goal that everyone is working toward. Each role is designed to help get closer to that goal.

And yet people often see subordinate roles as steppingstones to something bigger for themselves. This is a mistake. When you occupy a role, your aim should be to create positive results for the group.

This mindset earns you the trust of peers and higher-ups and can also lead to bigger opportunities in the future. More than that, when you’re focused on the mission and not your status, you can easily spot roles with potential for impact.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, learned this when she almost missed a chance to join Google because she felt the role was too small. The advice that changed her mind was simple but spot-on: when you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat, you just get on board.

In addition to focusing on the mission, you can also build trust by prioritizing your responsibilities or your craft. When you do this, you show that you’re more concerned with making a valuable contribution than getting recognition.

It’s the same when you take one for the team, perhaps by volunteering to put in extra hours to make sure your project meets its deadline. Paying attention to what the group needs and making personal sacrifices to help fulfill those needs increases trust and elevates your status.

When taking on a bigger, more powerful role, treat anxiety by rehearsing, warming up, and not focusing on yourself.

Many people dream of occupying powerful roles, whether in social groups, family set-ups, or at work. But stepping into those roles can be terrifying.

People often question their own abilities and worry about being judged, which prevents them from using their power well. They might, for example, avoid making tough choices for fear of being held accountable. Or they might prioritize being liked and end up making the wrong decisions.

Actors also experience performance anxiety, but they have ways of managing it. Their strategies can even be applied to roles off the stage.

The key message here is: When taking on a bigger, more powerful role, treat anxiety by rehearsing, warming up, and not focusing on yourself.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! It might be an old joke but its still what actors do in their many rehearsal sessions.

When you do something repeatedly, it becomes a habit. So, by rehearsing what a powerful role requires, you turn unfamiliar actions into behavior that feels natural. As a result, you start feeling more confident in your role.

But rehearsing isn’t simply running through what you plan to say. It’s more effective to incorporate as much detail as possible. For example, when preparing for a talk, the author puts on her costume, pulls out her props, and walks like she’s on a stage. This way, she gets fully immersed in the actions.

If you’ve rehearsed but still feel anxious before an important meeting or other situation where you need to exercise power, another strategy is to get physical. Warm-ups – like stretching, walking, or breathing exercises – can help you get rid of nervous energy. Plus, they distract you from anxious thoughts, making you feel calmer.

Speaking of distractions, this is another way that actors deal with nerves on stage.

It’s difficult to really get into character if you’re focused on how you feel or what others might think. So, actors try to focus on other things, like the fellow actors on stage. When using this technique, the author concentrates on the people around her and how they might be feeling, but you can also focus on sounds or objects around you.

We have the power to avoid becoming the victims of bullies, and to reclaim our stories if bullies get to us.

These days, we hear of people abusing power much too often. Headlines exposing corrupt leaders and revealing major scandals all suggest that power brings out the worst in people.

But power itself isn’t the problem. In most cases, those who abuse power have certain insecurities, and so they use whatever power they get to make themselves feel better.

Desperately wanting power and control can turn people into bullies, and it’s easy to feel completely vulnerable when we encounter them. But this doesn’t mean that we are. In fact, we can claim our power and flip the script by acting differently.

The key message here is: We have the power to avoid becoming the victims of bullies, and to reclaim our stories if bullies get to us.

If we don’t want to be the target of bullies, we need to spot them before they strike. This means knowing what to look out for. We should, for example, avoid people who don’t take no for an answer, or those who are overly critical of others, even if they’re nice to us.

We should also avoid places where bullies might feel empowered. In the same way that criminals often attack in dark alleys or quiet streets, abuses of power tend to happen where no one else can see them. Examples of this include private contexts or places where regular rules don’t apply, including work meetings outside the office or after hours.

Unfortunately, even with these precautions, we can still become targets of bullies. In these cases, we should behave in ways that will deter them.

One approach is to act unaffected by what they do. Those who abuse power enjoy seeing their victims angry, upset, or scared. But if we don’t take the bait, we become boring targets and they move on.

Another approach is to calmly call out bad behavior when it happens. This shifts the power to us, and lets the perpetrator know that they’re being watched.

If we fall prey to bullies despite our efforts to avoid or deter them, being a victim doesn’t have to be our story. We can regain our power by removing any blame that we might place on ourselves.

Believing that we caused or deserved the abuse can make us targets for other bullies or lead to self-destructive behavior. But when we realize that we’re not at fault, it becomes easier to move past the experience and to move on with our lives.

Using power well as a leader means guiding and looking out for others and elevating people who will do the same.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” This quote has been attributed to the philosopher Voltaire, the British politician Winston Churchill, and even to Spiderman’s uncle! But although the source is uncertain, the message remains clear.

The people at the very top of an organization or group have tremendous power, and how they use it impacts everyone. Being responsible with this power means using it for the benefit of those around them. This involves setting the direction, creating a safe space, and filling key roles.

The key message here is: Using power well as a leader means guiding and looking out for others and elevating people who will do the same.

Having direction and a shared vision is important in an organization. Without these, personal interests clash, and productivity is almost impossible. So, as the highest-ranking person, a leader should use their power to define and reinforce the overall objective. This sets the stage for each person to contribute meaningfully.

But for everyone to make their best contribution, the organization needs to be an encouraging place that’s safe from abuses of power. This also falls on the leader. They should be an example of acceptable behavior, and they should be quick to act when abuses of power happen on their watch.

A great example of this is how U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jay Silveria responded when African American cadets at the Air Force Academy were targets of racial slurs. He assembled all 6,500 cadets, faculty, and staff, and made it clear that the academy was no place for those who couldn’t treat others with dignity and respect.

In addition to defending others, as the Lieutenant General did, leaders can also create an optimal environment by promoting those who are also committed to using power well. There are three qualities that will set these people apart.

The first is a focus on achievement. This means a person is more concerned with learning skills and doing their job well than with quickly rising through the ranks.

The second quality to look for is warmth. Candidates should care about others and be willing to help them succeed.

The third and final quality is a mature approach to power. A candidate should view power as a tool to help others, and they should know how to use it to best serve the organization at large.

Final summary

The key message in this article:

Having power isn’t enough. You must know how and when to play it up or down depending on your goals and responsibilities. Sometimes, you’ll need to assert your power to protect others. This might mean taking charge in difficult situations, calling out abuses of power, or elevating those who’ll also use power to contribute to a shared mission. At other times, establishing trust and building relationships will take priority. This is when you’ll have to play power down by deferring to others or not taking yourself too seriously. While you won’t always feel capable of exerting power, by imagining different realities, rehearsing your part, and focusing on others or the bigger picture, you can find the confidence to own any role.

Actionable advice:

Protect others by being a powerful up-stander.

When you witness abuses of power, it often feels less risky to simply be a bystander. But if you make the choice to call out bad behavior, despite the personal risks, your actions will encourage others to do the same. So, the next time you see someone abusing their power, put yourself in the role of an actor on the stage, not someone in the audience. Intervene right there and then. If that’s not possible, offer your help afterwards.

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