Boost social influence by altering perceptions of power

  • perceptions of power and social influence

A recent study has been published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examining the link between power and the stress response. The findings show that not all power leads to social influence. Holding a powerful position becomes a burden when you perceive such a position as a responsibility – as opposed to an opportunity.

When viewing your power as a responsibility, it places a spotlight on the demands of a stressful task. These demands become the center of your attention which cause you to become preoccupied with the obligation of “taking care of things”.

It begs the question: Is there a way to construe power as an opportunity to “make things happen” rather than as a responsibility to “take care of things”? Research suggests there is. You can implement a number of different mental exercises in order to alter the perceptions of your power, and in turn heighten your social influence.

power as opportunity


Power as opportunity and social influence

There are many upsides to holding a powerful position. It evokes a sense of control, predicts better task performance, and results in a more efficient cardiovascular response.

However, not all power-holders reap these benefits. When you construe power as a responsibility, it causes you to enter into a threat state. When you’re in a threat state, any task – simple or complex – may feel burdensome. You view the task demands as fixed and final rather than something that can be morphed to fit your skill-set.

Opposite, when you construe your power as an opportunity, it causes you to enter a challenge state. In this state, when high demands are thrown at you, your body doesn’t react in a defensive manner because your mind perceives the demands as flexible. It works because the supposed gap between your resources (knowledge, skills etc.) and the demands of a task are brought closer together.

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Threat and challenge states produce widely different physiological markers. Threat physiology leads to wasted attention, more negative emotion, inefficient cardiac output, high cortisol release, and impaired motor functioning. Challenge physiology leads to effective attention, more positive emotion, improved cardiac output, adaptive hormonal responses, and better motor control.

When it comes to power meets threat vs. challenge, it can be broken down as follows:

  • Power as responsibility → fixed psychological boundaries  → skill-set doesn’t meet the situational demands → threat physiological markers → hindered goal performance → low social influence
  • Power as opportunity → flexible psychological boundaries → skill-set meets the situational demands → challenge physiological markers → heightened goal performance → high social influence

The following tactics prime your physiology to enter into a challenge state as opposed to a threat state so that you begin to recognize power as opportunity and have greater influence in your work. It does so by getting you to perceive the work you do as ever-changing, malleable, and amenable to growth.

flexibility leads to perception of power as opportunity


Allow yourself to make mistakes

Making mistakes isn’t always a bad thing. A study found that people who believe that their mistakes can be turned into lessons have a different brain reaction to making errors. These individuals had a larger brain response after making a mistake, an indication that they are cognizant  of their errors. This resulted in greater improvements in their performance.

Next time you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up about it. By thinking of errors as mini lessons, you can become less averse to the pang of making mistakes. You build resilience. Thus, you are free to view the demands of your job as an opportunity for success, rather than a potential for failure. Here are a few tips for allowing yourself to make mistakes:

  • React – but don’t overreact: When you overreact, it prevents you from thinking clearly which only makes it harder to take remedial action. People often overreact to situations due to cognitive distortions. These distortions are negative biases in thinking which cause you to be highly self-critical. Studies show that this pattern of thinking can be combated by using affiliative and self-enhancing humour.
  • Separate yourself from your mistakes: Everyone messes up once in a while. It’s part of what makes you human. It’s important to understand that your mistakes don’t define you. By making the distinction between you and your mistakes, you open yourself up to to learning and growing from your errors.
  • Acknowledge your role: When a mistake occurs, it can be tempting to put the blame on the people around you, especially since research shows that blaming others is contagious. However, it’s important to accept responsibility for the role you played in making a mistake, even if others aren’t willing to do the same.
knowing your role to learn


Focus on what you can control

The demands of a task aren’t set in stone. There’s always something you can work with. By focusing on what you can control, it allows you to approach a difficult situation with some confidence. It helps you see the potential for opportunity. Here are a few tips for focusing on what is in your control.

  • Understand your social influence: You may not be able to control everything that goes on around you, but that doesn’t mean you have zero amout of social influence. You can exert a respectful control over others through tactics of gentle persuasion. Consider, the findings from one study suggest that speaking quickly when someone disagrees with you and speaking slowly when someone agrees with you may make them more likely to do what you want.
  • Worry properly: When a situation arises, it’s not uncommon for people to sit around and think about it over and over. Although it may seem like you’re being effective in arriving at a solution, you’re likely just ruminating. Studies show that thinking in this way is linked to depression, and people who perform this behavior mistakenly believe it’s helpful.

Prevent rumination by setting a timer and allowing yourself to think about a thought repeatedly for that designated time. Once the time is up, don’t allow yourself to dwell on that thought any longer. By doing so, you give the worry the time it deserves, but then you move on to focus on the things that are more within your control.


Develop a growth mindset

Imagine, you just gave a presentation at work and it was a complete disaster. Do you attribute your failure to a lack of preparation or to a deficiency in your own public speaking skills?

If your response was the former, you likely have a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset means that you don’t see your abilities as innate. Rather, you believe your skills can be honed and developed. This mindset has been shown to promote resilience, increase confidence and improve academic scores. It has such effective outcomes that companies such as Microsoft have adopted company-wide initiatives to cultivate a culture of growth mindset.

People with this mindset are less likely to view a stressful task as a threat because they believe they have – or can develop – the skills necessary to make things happen. Here are a few ways that you can develop a growth mindset:

  • Praise the process: With endless demands and fast approaching deadlines, it can be easy to fixate on the outcome of a task rather than the process. However, a study showed that valuing the effort you put into the process of learning is the key to a growth mindset. Try praising the process by taking time to write down all the steps needed to complete a task. Then reward yourself for every step completed. Most important, reward yourself regardless of the outcome.
  • Think about the future: Those with a growth mindset are often future-oriented. They don’t give up when things get tough, because they understand that improvements don’t happen overnight. Try being future oriented by writing your long-term goals on a paper and taping it to your wall/desk. Look at that paper every night before you go to bed and let it be a reminder of what you’re working for.
  • Exercise self control: A growth mindset can be hard to maintain because when you’re faced with failure, it can be tempting to give up. This is why self-control is needed. A study revealed that it is easier to maintain self-control when you do things because you want to, not because you have to. Try this approach by creating a list of all the tasks that you need to complete this week. Then think of aspects from each task that you genuinely enjoy. This will turn obligations into things you want to do.
process focus helps growth mindset


The study: How the construal of power changes threat-challenge responses

The researchers proposed that when it comes to power-holders, construing power as responsibility can be quite costly. The reason, the researchers theorized, was because power-holders believe that they do not have enough resources to deal with the demands. Researchers performed a series of experiments to test their hypothesis.

In the first experiment, the authors tested whether perceiving high power as opportunity heightens a psychological profile consistent with a challenge physiological state. Three-hundred and four participants took part in the study and were asked to imagine themselves in a business situation where they were making investments in manager-assistant teams. The participants were randomly assigned to 4 conditions: 1) low-power responsibility, 2) low-power opportunity, 3) high-power responsibility, and 4) high-power opportunity.

Some participants were told that they were working as assistants (low power), or as managers (high power) for a well-known investment firm that was reinvesting money in new assets. Reinvesting was either described as an opportunity (e.g., to increase the company’s income), or as a responsibility (e.g., to meet the company’s corporate responsibility).

Next, to create a stressful performance situation, they were told that they would perform investment decisions based on their assigned conditions. Finally, they were asked to indicate the level of challenge/threat they felt.

Results showed that high power holders experienced different responses, depending on how they construed their power. Participants who interpreted their power as an opportunity were more likely to view a demand as a challenge. On the other hand, those who interpreted their power as a responsibility were more likely to view the demand as a threat.

The second experiment assessed challenge toward an intelligence test that was unrelated to the power role. Here, there were three conditions: high-power-as responsibility, high-power-as-opportunity, and one “standard” low-power control condition.

Similar to the first experiment, participants were first asked to imagine working in assistant-manager dyads. They were assigned to either a manager role (with both high-power-as responsibility and high-power-as-opportunity primes) or assistant role (standard low-power). Participants then judged another person’s ideas in a creativity contest based on their role, and later were told that they would collaborate with their manager or assistant on a new project. Finally, to induce a threat/challenge situation, all participants were presented with an intelligence test.

Again, as the authors predicted, the results showed that high-power-as-opportunity was more likely to induced a challenge response. Whereas high-power-as-responsibility induced a threat response that was not unlike those in the low-power condition.

In these two studies, threat-challenge appraisals were subjective. To extend the research to include more objective indicators, the authors conducted two more experiments assessing physiological responses to real-life power roles.

The results from the last two studies demonstrated that high power leads to greater challenge physiology when it is construed as opportunity rather than as responsibility. This was indicated by an increased cardiac output reactivity (i.e., the amount of blood pumped by the heart) for those who viewed power as an opportunity.

Overall, the present research suggests that merely construing power in different ways has the potential of changing how you think and feel. This is especially important in stressful situations in which your perception of power as a responsibility can seem like a burden, further preventing you from making important decisions and acting with social influence.


Recap on power and social influence

For most, having power equals having more access to resources and wielding control over others. However, as the present research demonstrates, having high power is not always desirable to possess. This is especially so when power is construed as responsibility rather than opportunity, with the former approach often leading power-holders to see the demands as outweighing their own skill-set.

There are a few tactics you can implement that will help you think of power as an opportunity.

  1. Allow yourself to make mistakes in order to find the lesson and learn from it.
  2. Focus on what you can control rather than dwelling on what you can’t.
  3. Develop a growth mindset to see your behaviors and role as ever-changing.