Deborah Gruenfeld is a leading social psychologist and the Joseph McDonald chaired professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In her work, she examines the way people are transformed by the organizations and social structures in which they work.
Gruenfeld’s award-winning research on power, influence, and group dynamics has been featured in many scholarly journals as well as in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. She’s co-founder and co-director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders at Stanford, and has shared the principles of acting with power with all kinds of executives at Stanford and beyond.
Her new book is Acting With Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Deborah about happiness, habits, and leadership.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Deborah: Doing art, of any kind, in any way. I am a scientist by trade, and I would not describe myself as an accomplished artist of any kind. But mostly I am attracted to the beauty in science, and the artistry of it. Doing science is not just technical. It requires seeing things we thought we understood in a new light, using imagination and interpretation, crafting a compelling story.
I love to consume art also, to just appreciate it, especially dance, music and painting. I could look at paintings all day (after a rough week, sometimes I do). To relax sometimes I look at art on Pinterest, and have curated my own private “museum” that I can enjoy any time. A beautiful painting, a great song, or a spirited dance performance always evokes awe, fills me with positive energy, and creates a sense of peach and gratitude, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
I also love acting, which has been a relatively recent discovery. I’m a novice, strictly amateur, but it’s not the performance aspect or the desire to improve that grips me. It is the doing of it, of immersing yourself in a well-told story, appreciating the beauty of the language in a well-crafted script, and the experience of losing yourself in an alternative reality and trying to find personal meaning in it. It’s creative, it’s collaborative, and it’s just an absolute blast. I love how in art, the goal is not to do something “right,” but to just do it and to lose your awareness of yourself in the work.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness comes from loving, not from being loved. It comes from commitment, responsibility, discipline and hard work, not from the recognition you sometimes achieve.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Most of my research has examined how power—the relative capacity to control others—affects behavior. Showing that powerful people are sometimes badly behaved is an idea that has resonated. Everyone feels a little resentful of those above them in the pecking order. So it’s fun and satisfying to have reason to take them down a notch.
Right now I’m more interested in the idea that there are limits to how much normal people crave power and that there are many situations in which most people will choose a lower ranking position over a higher one. Contrary to conventional thinking, I don’t believe that striving for the highest position in every situation is either as common or as healthy as most in our culture believe.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I’ve gotten much better at dealing with my own performance anxiety. I’ve learned techniques for making sure that I am in the right frame of mind to have a positive impact on others. I simply take the time now, before a high-stakes encounter, to “move off myself.” Specifically, I direct where my attention goes. I focus mentally on who I am dealing with and I try to take their perspective on the encounter. And I focus visually on the person, and just take them in without judgment, so that there are no mental resources available for thinking about myself, and how I look, or feel.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Obliger. With a hint of Upholder.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
An internal mantra you can say to yourself before making an entrance or taking the stage: “I’m glad to be here, and I know what I know.”
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Thich Naht Hahn’s Teachings on Love.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Psychologists define power, like most things, as something personal: a feeling, a way of acting, a source of competitive advantage over others, or a measure of self-worth. By defining power this way, as a resource for personal consumption, we perpetuate the idea that power exists for the purpose of individual enhancement and self-aggrandizement. It clouds our understanding of where power comes from, and what power is for.
What the world needs more of, right now, is people who understand that power is a responsibility, that it lives and dies in relationships and connects people to one another, and that it exists for the protection and enhancement of groups, not just the individuals who wield it.
More on Deborah Gruenfeld.