Business School Professor Explores the Effects of Power

Professor Adam Galinsky is power hungry. For more than a decade, he has studied the role of power as a psychological force, both its behavioral effects and the practical implications of having power and feeling powerful. 

June 28, 2013

“Power is the central regulator of human interaction, so in most interactions we want to come across as someone on the higher rungs of the hierarchy,” Galinsky says. “It is such an effective regulator of social relationships because it creates patterns of deference, reduces conflict, creates division of labor—all things that make our species successful.” Power is so deeply ingrained in human beings that we are surprisingly easy to power prime—that is, to coax ourselves into feeling more or less powerful than we typically feel. In new research, Galinsky, working with David Dubois of INSEAD, Joris Lammers of Tilburg University,and Derek Rucker of Northwestern University, shows just how effective power priming can be when we face some of life’s most challenging and stressful experiences. The research was inspired in part by the story of Francesca Gino, who is now a professor at Harvard Business School. She was making the rounds for an academic position that required her to present her research to sizable audiences of academics. In her two previous times interviewing, she got interviews at Harvard and Wharton but no offer. In subsequent interviews, though, just before she gave each talk, she wrote out a power prime, a method Galinsky and his colleagues had developed to make people feel powerful. Hundreds of studies have shown that simply recalling a time in which one has power produces the same effects as having power. Power buffers people from stress (for example, it reduces cortisol, a stress hormone) and helps people feel and express more confidence. Armed with a power prime, Gino ended up getting offers from four top-tier universities, including Harvard and Wharton. Galinsky decided to test more formally whether power-primed people would not only feel less stressed under pressure, but would express the necessary confidence to get the job. The researchers conducted two experiments designed to test these questions. In one experiment, students were asked to write about a time when they either had power or lacked power (the students believed themselves to be participating in a warm-up task). They were then asked to write a hypothetical application letter for a real job advertised in a well-known newspaper. The researchers then had a different group of students read the essays and evaluate if they would hire the person for the job. The student judges deemed the power-primed application letters as more confident, and they were much more likely to rate the power-primed applicants as people they would want to hire. Would judges who saw power-primed candidates in the flesh—rather than merely reading letters—react similarly? Galinsky and colleagues conducted another experiment, this time in a face-to-face setting, and found similar results. Graduate business school candidates who wrote about an experience of personal power prior to participating in a mock job interview saw their odds of acceptance shoot up: they were accepted 68 percent of the time, compared with a normal acceptance rate of 47 percent. And people who wrote about a time in which they lacked power plummeted in effectiveness, with only 26 percent of them getting selected by the judges. The judges—in this case, the interviewers—rated power-primed applicants as much more persuasive than the powerless-primed candidates. There is something about how power-primed people presented themselves that others picked up on,” Galinsky says, “They expressed themselves with more confidence and more persuasiveness and that led them to get better outcomes.” A large body of management research suggests that soft skills—those related to managing interpersonal interactions—are often more critical in leadership roles than more readily defined skills such as financial or technical analysis. Galinsky’s work here offers one more tool for shoring up those soft skill portfolios. “Anytime you need to present yourself in a confident and persuasive way this technique can be effective,” Galinsky concludes. “It could be a job interview, a date, an important presentation at the office—anytime that you want a little bit of swagger—recalling an experience of power can be really effective.” —Reprinted from Columbia Ideas at Work. Used with permission.