Why Nice Guys Finish Last at Startups

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organization development at Stanford, has been teaching students about power dynamics in the workplace for the last 30 years. This fall, Pfeffer published a book —  Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t  —  that explores why what’s best for your employer isn’t always good for your career, and suggests that backing down never pays off.

I caught up with Pfeffer this morning to talk about the book and its applicability to startups.

How is it that you came to specialize in the topic of power?

It’s a hugely important phenomenon, and while there are elective courses on power at some business schools, there aren’t as many as you’d think. Given its importance in understanding social life, it’s very much underresearched and undertaught, so it was a natural thing [for me to] focus on it.

You’ve been teaching at Stanford since 1979. Has power dynamics in the workplace changed at all, or is human nature too determinate?

You could read the prints The Prince by Machiavelli and change his references to ancient Italy and [you’d draw the same conclusions]. Yes, human psychology is relative unchanged over time. And it’s universal. One of the interesting challenges in my teaching and writing are people who say, “This is interesting in the U.S. but it would never work in a collectivistic culture like China or India.” Then you send them off to do the case studies and they come back and say, “Things really are the same all over.”

The book seems to suggest that intelligence and productivity aren’t nearly so important as being political.

Well, there are boundary conditions. If you’re mentally deficient, of course, it’s going to have an impact. But I didn’t write the book for Stanford MBAs alone. It’s for people who are reasonably intelligent, educated and ambitious, and for whom having more intelligence isn’t going to be the differentiating factor. It’s really political skill that’s more important for getting ahead.

But is political skill something that can be learned or is it innate?

I can give you numerous examples of students who became way more effective during and after my class than before. If you look at the research on genius and outstanding performance, in every field – from mathematics to art to sports like golf and football – individual abilities matter a little but not much. It is practice, effort, learning, and good coaching that matters way more.

How do you practice being more political?

By understanding what you need to do to have more power, then practice doing it. You can practice seeing the world from someone else’s point of view. You can learn networking. You can learn how to act and speak with power and to become more forceful in how you carry yourself and communicate. All these skills are teachable and learnable.

But politics is kind of a dirty word, isn’t it?

Look, hierarchies are a fact of life. They’re as inevitable as the fact that we’re all going to get old and die. At startups, people may be told things aren’t hierarchical, but they are. There’s one chairman. There’s one CEO. And there will always be many who would rather be at the top than the bottom and people who are willing to do whatever they can to rise up, including through networking, self-promotion, and other personal abilities. To me, I try to get my students away from the idea of good people and bad people. It’s like asking whether it’s good that the sun rises in the East. It’s a fact of life that you kind of have to get used to.

Is it possible to be productive at a startup if you’re constantly fighting off someone who is power hungry?

You need to watch carefully what they are doing and learn from it, rather than say, “This is repugnant.”

Why some people don’t get to the top is because they opt out. They see the game and decide that they aren’t willing to play, and then it’s game over. You have to be better at the game than the people you’re competing with.

Never mind that it could prove toxic to the organization?

You do have to think of yourself as well as the organization. I don’t think many organizations frankly care too much about their employees, including the small, entrepreneurial ones. They have their own logic and they take care of themselves and you have to take care of yourself. Rather than get into a conflict, you can back off, but that only reinforces the effectiveness of your opponent. 

One of the personal qualities [required to gain power] is the willingness to engage in conflict. The average human being is conflict averse and will back down when challenged with anger. I think Rahm Emanuel was so effective because most people will back down when confronted with profanity and strong behavior. It’s also why George Steinbrenner used to get his way so much. To be in the game, you have to say, “I can do this as good as [my competitor], and I will do this to the extent that it’s necessary.” If you go to the tennis court and you’re not willing to play the game as hard as your opponent, it’s the same thing. You aren’t going to win.

Assuming you want to, what are some practical ways you can gain the upper hand at your startup?

Speak with power — without being profane. Also, interrupt. It’s one of the reasons that women have less power, generally speaking – there’s a huge gender difference in [their willingness to cut someone off mid-sentence]. Also, make sure you’re permitted to complete your sentences, and use vivid emotion-producing language.

Such as?

Such as Oliver North [of the late ‘80s Iran-Contra affair], saying, “I’d have offered the Iranians a free trip to Disneyland if we could have gotten the hostages home.” You use concrete examples. Don’t speak in abstract forms.

What are some other tips?

Networking. Stop spending so much time with your friends and family and spend more time with strangers. Our friends and family only provide us redundant information. You’re more likely to find jobs through weak ties. I have a former student who decided he wanted to be in biotech industry. He knew no one, but in approximately 8 months, because he recognized who the key players were and on a daily basis set about meeting them, he became the center of an amazing network and landed a great job.

I sense you don’t see distinctions between big and small companies.

I don’t. People think that if they go to work for a startup, it will be less political, but that’s not true. Someone might think: I’m going to go to Silicon Valley [and] my success will be based on my technical success. Well, that might be true for four or five years of your career, especially if there’s a high technical component. But as soon as you move into the managerial ranks, it’s all about interpersonal skill.

But how can you focus on interpersonal relationships when you’re simultaneously trying to beat down competitive threats? It sounds schizophrenic.

There’s a happy medium between cultivating friendships [and running roughshod over your colleagues], and that’s what you want to do. Facebook and LinkedIn have created this culture in which we’re all friends and we’re all sharing everything. And to some extent, that’s true. But the skill is to recognize that you need your colleagues’ help, while at the same time, you’re rivals for promotions, and you need to be able to play both games at the same time.

Any advice here?

Hours matter, energy matters. I don’t know anyone who’s reached high levels of organization or power without putting in an enormous amount of effort. From Barak Obama, who campaigned endlessly, to Rudy Crew, the former chancellor of New York City’s Board of Education. All these people spend a lot of time getting to where they are. Others say they aren’t willing to make that trade-off, and I have no problem with someone saying, “This isn’t a price that I’m willing to pay.” But you don’t get to the top.

You’ve done a lot of research on industry leaders. Who you do think has gone the furthest while accomplishing the least?

I’m sure there are many, but probably [former GE chair and CEO] Jack Welch. I think many CEOs who’ve gotten this iconic status have established themselves as much through their reputations as what they do. And that’s important. You shouldn’t wait until you’re CEO to get a publicist. You [Connie] get one at your level, not when you become the head of Reuters. Build an image. Build a reputation. Have everyone talking about you.

There was a woman working at a financial management firm in San Francisco, and this firm would occasionally get calls from the press. Most of the people there said, “This isn’t my job. My job is to manage money, not talk with a bunch of dumb reporters.” It was also decided that they should have a firm blog, and she wrote it. She built visibility and her reputation and found herself a very good next job because she’d become the go-to person. And you see this all the time.

The people who you source in your stories on a regular basis: Are they the “best” or most “brilliant” or are they the most accessible and willing to help you do your job? You see, it really isn’t rocket science.