“The Power Paradox” by Dacher Keltner

AUTHOR: Dacher Keltner

AUTHOR: Dacher Keltner

There is no doubt that many think of diplomats as power possessors. Diplomats have an opportunity to grow investments for their country and influence foreign policy based on their assessments and analyses. Head of Missions are given great titles and are referred to as “Your Excellency” in formal occassions. But what is the meaning of power? How can diplomats use power to gain and lose influence? How can we ensure that we are not seduced by power when we are working on the job because there are many stories of diplomats who become corrupted by power, even when there are certain governance in place. Seductions of success lead us to lose those very qualities that made us powerful in the first place.  

To help you get to grips with a working concept of power, we recommend the book “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence” by Dacher Keltner, in support of Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” of the Diplomatic Planner. In this book, Dr Keltner draws up a wealth of data from numerous social science studies over 20 years to get to the bottom of what power means in everyday life and how we can influence power. The author draws on fascinating case studies to illuminate this 'power paradox', revealing how it shapes not just companies and elections but everyday relationships. As his myth-busting research shows, power - and powerlessness - distorts our behaviour, affecting whether or not we will have an affair, break the law, drive recklessly or find our purpose in life…..power is an integral human motive often disguised as influence.

According to the author, the word “power” does not have a tight definition and may denote sinister and Machiavellian meaning associated to those who will do anything to get what they want. Power can corrupt but power can also be a force for good, and this book goes into depth on how these two phenomena works on either side.  

Dr Kelter is clear to state that power can and should be a force for good, and in order to attain power for this purpose, we must act compassionately and selflessly towards others and their needs. However, we mustn’t let power rule us and our decision where we start to lose the ability to empathise with others. This is how we blur the line between power that does good versus power that corrupts.

As power has the possibility to change lives, we must be mindful how power plays a role with our interactions with people and our relationship with them. Power is not exclusively held by just politicians, celebrities and head of states. We all have power and the power to change things to influence the world and put things into action. Because power is found everywhere, scientists have long studied how we use it. One study that the author references looked into the power dynamics of everyday life, which involved observing a group of strangers who were asked to cooperate on solving a problem without assigned roles. As you can imagine, some individuals naturally assumed the role of leader and by offering opinions or encouraging others to participate. Generally speaking, the author argues that those who improve the lives of others get power, while those you don’t lose their influence. This may be debatable when you look at our current political dynamics on the international scene. Nevertheless, in the case of social media, it is clear that the multitude of Instagram users are able to gain or lose influence through the number of followers they acquire.  

According to research referenced by the author, influence is determined by a person’s ability to improve the lives of the others instead of themselves. But what do you do once you have power? How do you hold on to it without it serving your own interest? Simply put, power is much easier to lose than to gain. In fact, the latter requires a lot of hard work and dedication, which also means that to maintain power, you need to continue to put in the work. This means continuing to be generous and encouraging others rather than holding on to power selfishly when others request that you step off the leadership stand. Other ways to maintain power are to use gratitude and storytelling that bring people together. Such acts are talked about further in Chapter 8 of the Diplomatic Planner. In short, sharing captivating stories engage the interests of others which tightens social bonds.

We are all susceptible to the dangers of power. Power can reduce our empathy and encourage our self-serving nature. A study showed that those who experience powerlessness crave power more and tend to be less empathetic. As well as being  more self-serving, those with power will sometimes rationalise disrespectful behaviour towards others with questionable excuses. This extends to power belonging to those who are considered privileged versus those who are poor or with less opportunities. When it comes to social injustice, for example, the wealthy have created ways to rationalise their situation to feel less guilty as a way to protect themselves as their sense of power. By undermining their own power, they feel less guilty or inclined to help others in lesser situations.

Stress also often comes from being in a position of powerlessness experienced daily by those disadvantaged by society. Look at the tradition roles between police and their occupiers and then that of race and politics. As outlined in this book, neuroscientists have conducted long-term studies that reveal physiological effects of powerlessness and understanding the extent of such dynamics can help us battle sexism, racism, homophobia and other inequalities in our society.

Ultimately, we must learn to respect one another and acknowledge our achievements by practicing gratitude, being humble and influencing for the sake of helping people. How we use power can determine your level of influence but your intention and motivation will uncover whether your power is self-serving or used for the service of others.

“The Power Paradox” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register