– Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
The Power Lens is one way that distorts how we see and understand one another. Your perceiver is wearing it whenever he or she with has relatively more power than you do. And this lens has a straight-forward agenda: prove yourself useful to me, or get out of my way.
When I talk about power, I don’t necessarily mean CEOs, government leaders, or the rich and influential – although those people undoubtedly wield power. I also mean it much more broadly, to include the kind of garden-variety power that ordinary people encounter or experience on a daily basis. Perhaps the most commonly agreed upon—though decidedly technical—definition of power among psychologists is this: Power is asymmetrical control over desired resources. In other words, powerful people get to make the choices and decisions, and powerless people get to live with them.
Thought about this way, it becomes clear that there are many different sources of power. Managers have more power than their employees, because they control important outcomes—everything from task assignments and parking spaces to whether or not you even have a job in the first place. Popularity is a kind of power, too, since popular people are the gate-keepers to the most coveted circles of society. Their friendship, in this case, is the “desired resource” in question. And popular people get to dictate the norms of style, speech, and behavior that the unpopular must follow if they are to have any hope of “fitting in.” More affluent people enjoy more power than the poor, because they depend less on others in order to obtain the things they desire. And experts, like scientists, celebrity endorsers, editorialists, and critics, have power—the power to influence public opinion.
What is really essential to understand about all of these sources of power is that they are all dependent on context and circumstance. Your boss only has power over you if you want to continue working for her—once you’ve decided to quit, her power evaporates. (If she then decides to beg you to stay, suddenly you are the one with the power to make demands in exchange for the outcome she wants. Got to love it when that happens.)
The point is that power dynamics are not simple or static. It’s really never that Person X is more powerful than you, period. It’s that Person X is more powerful under these specific circumstances, with respect to these particular issues, at this point in time. And that is when he or she will be wearing the Power Lens.
How the (Relatively) Powerful See You
What we know for certain is that powerful perceivers often rely heavily on a bag of mental short-cuts to keep the time and energy they must devote to perceiving you to the bare minimum. There is less agreement on why that’s true, however. Some argue that it’s purely about cognitive “load” – that the powerful want to conserve their mental resources for the really important stuff (or, more accurately, for what they believe to be the really important stuff.) Some say it’s more of an accidental consequence of the self-focus that power tends to create.
Other researchers point to evidence that suggests the powerful want (largely unconsciously) to maintain a sense of psychological distance from the less powerful, and so they deliberately pay less attention to them.
There’s good reason to believe that all three of these factors are playing a role in the functioning of the Power Lens. Here’s what the Power Lens is doing:
Powerful people seem to feel that they need not have complex, nuanced views of you if you are (relatively) powerless. An abundance of studies have reliably shown that simply feeling powerful tends to make ordinary people more stereotypic in their thinking, too.
Research also shows that feelings of power will make an interviewer or supervisor more likely to be biased by stereotypic information when choosing job candidates or distributing rewards. She is likely to be particularly biased by the negative stereotypes about the target (e.g., women are too emotional, bad at math, etc.) – though she will likely have no idea the bias is influencing her judgment. (And yes, even a female interviewer or supervisor will, non-consciously, use negative stereotypes of women to judge other women. One of the most interesting, if a bit horrifying, discoveries in the past twenty years of social psychology has been that people can be influenced by stereotypes even when they believe them to be utterly wrong.)
When powerful people experience feelings of threat – when, say, the source of their power is illegitimate or unstable – they often negatively stereotype subordinates even more. For instance, a set of studies found that people assigned to be group leader paid particular attention to negative stereotypic information about their other group members, but only when they were randomly chosen to be group leader. When, instead, they felt they had earned the role through an evaluation of their social skills and suitability for the job, the bias disappeared. Research like this suggests that powerful leaders can and do use negative stereotyping strategically, to bolster their sense of entitlement to power.
But the powerful are not always less perceptive. There are circumstances when power leads to enhanced, more accurate perception. And therein lies the key to mastering the Power Lens.
Research by psychologists Jennifer Overbeck and Bernadette Park has shown that powerful perceivers aren’t uniformly terrible—in fact, they argue, it would be more accurate to describe them as flexible, using their attention as a resource that they deploy strategically. In other words, when their goal requires them to pay close attention to individuating information about a person in order to form a more accurate impression of him or her, powerful people are able to do so more effectively than the relatively powerless.
In one of their studies, for example, they found than when power holders were given the goal of making workers feel engaged and included, they were more indeed much likely to differentiate between them, and to accurately discern their individual characteristics. In other words, powerful people will pay attention to you when doing so facilitates their goal. Which means that in order to get powerful people to perceive you accurately, you are going to need to make it necessary or rewarding.
How to Be Seen Clearly Through the Fog of Power
There is a really important insight here. For the powerful, your instrumentality is key. Frankly, it is all that matters. What can you do to help them reach their goals? How is having an accurate understanding of you in their self-interest? If they invest time and mental energy into really “getting” you, what is the potential return on their investment?
The first step to being instrumental is to understand the desires and challenges of the powerful person in question. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the powerful person is your direct supervisor. You know what your targets and stretch goals are for the year—what are hers?
Where does she need help the most—and how could you ease her burden? Where is she falling behind? Most of us have a little wiggle room when it comes to how we allocate our time. By prioritizing your own tasks in such a way that they provide assistance to your boss where she needs it most, you can dramatically increase your perceived usefulness.
Also, it goes without saying that to be instrumental, you need to do everything that is directly asked of you—but where you can really stand out is by anticipating your boss’s needs, before she asks. I had an research assistant who did exactly that – who prepared literature reviews for me that she knew I would eventually need, who had documents ready before I asked for them, who took over—without being asked to—the scheduling of research participants, a thankless and frustrating job. I wrote her the most glowing recommendation I’ve ever written for a student. And when she left my lab and moved on to graduate school, I was depressed for a week. That’s instrumentality.
Instrumentality isn’t about being nice – it’s about being useful. Whenever I’m at a conference or an awards dinner with a few movers and shakers in attendance, I’m always a little amazed to see how reflexively people seem to shower the powerful with flattery and ingratiation. It’s so natural is just seems to come rushing out of their mouths. I really admire the work you do. I’m such a big fan. Your marketing strategy is brilliant. Sure, that might elicit a smile. And of course being “warm” signals that you are a friend and not a foe, which is good. But believe me when I tell you that powerful people by and large don’t give a damn that you think they are awesome. To really get their attention, you’ll need to let them know how you can help facilitate their continuing, increasing awesomeness. If you want them to see the real you, this is the only way.
That probably sounds a little Machiavellian to you, but in fairness, powerful people tend to be powerful because they have a lot of responsibilities and a whole lot going on. Everyone’s mental and emotional resources are limited. It may be arrogant, but it’s also fundamentally practical. You have to be worth taking time and energy for, and they have no reason to believe you are unless you give them one.
That does not mean that you should walk up to a powerful person and just start listing your good qualities. They don’t care about those, either. It’s the goals that matter. What are their goals, do they align with yours, and how can you be instrumental in reaching them? Know the answers to these questions, and you’ll have their Power Lens working for you.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Heidi Grant Halvorson’s new book: No One Understands You and What to Do About It, available now on Amazon.