September 2023 | 

The Little-Known Source of Power You Could Use Tomorrow

The Little-Known Source of Power You Could Be Exercising Tomorrow

“I wish I had learned this sooner.” That’s what professor Cade Massey hears from 20-something MBA students, 60-something executives, and those in between when he teaches influence and persuasion. “What's profound to me,” says Massey, “is not just how often that's expressed, but how people at every career stage say it could have helped them avoid mistakes and get promoted sooner.”

Massey, who leads the new Executive Influence: Increasing Your Impact with Persuasion and Power program, stresses that most people intuit a few of the skills in the influence toolbox, “but almost nobody intuits the whole thing. That means most of them go through their career under-equipped. There are more tactics they could be using, and a broader perspective they could be seeing and responding to situations with, especially when they lack formal authority.”

Formal Authority Not Required

Organizations may continue to grow leaner and flatter, and managers may have fewer and fewer direct reports, but the need to get things done with the help of other people remains. Massey says that’s exactly the situation where someone well versed in the skills of influence and persuasion succeeds.

“Does anyone still believe the workplace is purely meritocratic?” he asks. “There are plenty of people with power by virtue of their role who don’t know how to wield it. We tend to think that a person who has formal authority can make anything happen, but that's not really true. They might be able to get some compliance, but to do important things, big things, hard things, you need more than compliance. Even people who have formal authority need to know how to wield that.”

But it also — and perhaps more importantly — goes the other way. People with little positional power can be great at getting people on board with their ideas. The key is understanding the three sources of power that can be used to influence others, and how to exercise them. “Very few people are actively working with all three,” says Massey.

Common Power Strategies

In Executive Influence: Increasing Your Impact with Persuasion and Power, participants first learn to think more broadly about hard and soft power, the most common ways to get things done in an organization. “Hard power is coercive — telling someone to do something and having them comply just because you said so,” says Massey. “It is more easily done when you have formal authority, but people can also exercise it as a function of the way they carry themselves. Just because in some sense it’s the oldest form of power doesn't mean it's no longer relevant. It still matters in organizations, and it can be applied in many more ways than most people realize.”

Soft power has its roots in the 1990s work of political scientist Joseph Nye, who revealed how a surprising amount of a country's influence in the world comes not from its military might, but from its ability to get others to want the same thing it wants. Massey says there are many elements that comprise soft power, which are all relational. But, he stresses, “even those with great people skills have things they can learn, tools they're not using, and nuance that they can add.”

A Hidden Source of Power

“Smart power is the most recently identified type, and most people haven't heard of it,” he says. “As far as I know, Wharton is the only place where we’re not only talking about it, but we're measuring and testing it. And we're finding that it is reliably one of the most important, if not the most important, of the three strategies. Smart power includes things like influencing focus and initiative.”

Another element of smart power is situational awareness, a concept borrowed from the military that refers to the extent to which your perceptions match reality. As people rise through an organization, their access to information can become more limited: people around them might be less willing to share bad news, for example, and they can be further removed from the day-to-day realities of the business. That means lowered situational awareness and neglect of this power strategy.

“Good situational awareness requires diverse relationships, diverse networks, and the active cultivation and maintenance of those networks,” says Massey. “It means getting out of your day-to-day and breaking your routines in order to learn something that you wouldn't otherwise. It's a long-term investment with the potential for big payoffs.”

To illustrate his point, Massey shares a favorite example. “Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation shows how critical timing is to situational awareness. He decided to free the slaves months before he actually gave the proclamation, but he waited because at the time, the Union was losing the Civil War and he didn't think it would be effective.”

“Lincoln had morality on his side, but he knew that to be effective he had to deliver one of the grandest acts in the history of government at the right time, when the Union was winning,” Massey says. To exercise smart power as Lincoln did requires paying attention, having the relationships, having the conversations, and getting away from your desk. Those are the ways you can maintain your awareness and ask for what you need from others when they are most likely to hear and support you.

The Ethics of Influence

Massey adds a final word on the subject: “The longer I've worked with executives on influence, the more I've come to realize how important it is to exercise the tools of influence responsibly. We interweave integrity and ethics throughout the program because we are teaching tools that can be misused. In fact, much of the skepticism about these tools comes from seeing them misused. Developing sustainable influence that can be exercised over the course of a career is not about winning today's battle. It is a long-term investment that requires integrity.”