Why aren't you more powerful?

December 1, 2010: 5:00 PM ET

Despite evidence to the contrary, most of us persist in the delusion that smarts and hard work will eventually be rewarded because we buy in to what psychologists call the "just-world hypothesis" -- the belief, conscious or not, that life is fair.

There you are, working away at your job, turning in consistently great work. One of these days, the people above you are bound to notice your talent and dedication and promote you to the lofty position you deserve. Right?

Good luck with that.

As Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford's graduate business school, points out in his latest book Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't, decades of exhaustive research show little connection between performance and power.

That notion will hardly shock anyone who has ever watched a less-qualified colleague's career take off like a rocket. Yet most of us persist in the delusion that smarts and hard work will eventually be rewarded because we buy in to what psychologists call the "just-world hypothesis" -- the belief, conscious or not, that life is fair.

Instead, Pfeffer contends, peons who aspire to power have to step away from the grindstone and cultivate, or acquire, the traits shared by powerful people, including ambition, confidence, and persistence.

One crucial skill on the path to power is "the ability to tolerate conflict," Pfeffer adds, noting that most of us are so averse to confrontation that we back down rather than standing up for our views. The powerful, as you may have noticed, are far less shy.

They're also expert politicians. Like a modern Machiavelli, Pfeffer coolly examines "the strategy of flattery" as a way of gaining influence, especially with those more powerful, and tells why you should use it to make higher-ups "think well of you because you make them feel good about themselves."

None of Pfeffer's prescriptions is easy and, once you've fought and flattered your way to the top, staying there takes "long hours and lots of energy," he observes. In his chapter on how people lose power, he notes, "People get tired." As many an ousted CEO has learned the hard way, knowing when to let go and step down gracefully may be the trickiest power play of all.

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Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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