When you think about people who are strongly driven to acquire power, what kinds of things do you imagine they are after? Is power about having: influence over others, money, status, glory, independence, self-confidence?
Popular stories in our culture like to distinguish power seekers from relationship seekers—people whose primary motivation is to foster connections and intimacy with others. The power and relationship motives are usually depicted as incompatible, where power is achieved at the expense of having relationships. As prime examples, think about the main characters in films like Citizen Kane, Scarface, and The Social Network. These stories tell us that power seeking is driven by self-centered ambitions, and as long as this motive is strong, the relationship seeking motive will be weak.
We forget that the rewards of power and the rewards of relationships overlap. We forget that power connects people to one another, and the more powerful person usually reaps the rewards of these relationships. Having power means having favorable connections to others.
Imagine a typical power imbalance in the workplace. A company hires two people to run a newly-created department at the company: Mr. Alpha is brought in to head the new department and Mr. Beta is hired as second in command. Mr. Alpha is given the power to fire and/or promote Mr. Beta, making Mr. Beta dependent on Mr. Alpha’s approval. Their jobs have established this connection between them, and we can be fairly certain that their interactions will be more pleasant for Mr. Alpha than Mr. Beta. Mr. Beta will be more accommodating, deferential, and experience more anxiety about saying or doing the wrong things.
As it happens, Mr. Alpha has relocated from across the country to take this job, and feels isolated in his new city. Mr. Alpha’s not a bad guy, but he insists that he and Mr. Beta take all their coffee breaks and go out on all sales calls together, just so Mr. Alpha can have the interpersonal contact. Mr. Beta goes along without complaining. After a few weeks Mr. Alpha begins to feel less isolated in his surroundings, having established some camaraderie.
In power imbalances, the more powerful person can usually set the terms of the relationship and build rapport without much resistance. This may not create close authentic bonds, but don’t underestimate the appeal of casual interactions with people who are courteous and attentive to you. These interactions should be especially appealing to men, who tend to be more satisfied with shallow relationships than women.
The point is that these relationships can be rewarding, and ultimately strengthen the allure of power. For some people, the promise of social connections may even be the hidden force behind their desire for power, especially for people who have trouble establishing connections under normal circumstances.
So even though the search for power and relationships are often portrayed as competing goals, it’s rarely that simple. Selfish goals may navigate the pursuit of power, but the motivation to connect with others is stronger than it seems, stronger than even the seeker realizes.
Published by Ilan Shrira