What’s it about?

Acting with Power (2020) takes the mystery out of power by breaking down what it actually is and how to use it effectively wherever we find ourselves. Borrowing techniques from the field of acting, these blinks also detail how to cope when we feel nervous or unprepared for powerful roles, or when we desire more power than we’ve been given.

About the author:

Deborah Gruenfeld is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she co-directs the Executive Program for Women Leaders. For over 25 years, her research, writing, and teaching have been focused on the psychology of power, and she’s been featured in academic journals and publications including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. She’s also the co-author of Stress in the American Workplace.


Power, the role that we play in the lives of other people:

High standing, impressive wealth, and title authority. We tend to think about this when we hear the word “power.” We believe those who have these things are powerful automatically, but that doesn’t matter.

People with status, money, or the right title may be powerful, but so can those who don’t have these things. For instance, someone driving out of a full car park is not powerful by himself. But the moment someone else rises up and hopes to park, the first driver has power suddenly. If he wants, he can delay the newcomer by not leaving quickly.

What we see in this scene is that power is not what we have. It’s more about social relations and how much other people and their circumstances we can control at any time.

Whether our relationships are professional, personal, or with anyone in the immediate vicinity, they make us dependent. This means that everybody has power, even if it does not look or feel like it does.

For instance, take a parent-child connection. A parent may decide and tell the child what to do, making the parent strong. But the ability to give or reject this means that the child also possesses some strength if the parent wants to love and respect for his child, which most parents do.

Another example is the work settings. Bosses can determine who works on what projects and how much people are paid for. However, an employee who is great at his job and very wanted in the industry has the ability to negotiate.

Now a boss can only decide to use his power to his own advantage, for example, by giving a subordinate, who can’t say no, a heavy workload. But that’s not the purpose of power.

Hierarchies and power dynamics help people working together socially and in the workplace to benefit each other and solve common problems. This means that we should not be wondering, “What’s in it for me” when considering how to use our power? Instead, we should think about how we can assist others.


The best way to protect others’ interests is by playing power-up:

Just guess you’re going to take an improved acting lesson and have a solid character to play. What are you going to do?

Most people try to control it by raising their voices, breaking other characters, and wobbled around the stage. This self-confident conduct is called play power, and actors often use it. It’s their way to get people to and from the stage to respect their nature.

Theater and acting classes alone do not play power-up, however. People do this at work, at home, and in many others. The problem is that people don’t always use it for the right reasons.

In the real world, power-up is a way to assert power and respect for others. And this is done in various ways.

It’s pulling rank most often. People apply rules or comply with others by stressing their authority. Henry Ford, for example, reportedly muzzled his staff by saying, “My name is on the building.” This is quite difficult to argue with!

It’s also difficult to argue if someone with power tells you no, interrupts, or totally ignores you. Likewise, a person with power can freely judge subjugates, compliment, or criticize them. by making fun of them. They can’t complain because subordinates don’t have the power, although they don’t like that.

If you do so to affirm your dominance or intimidate others, playing power-up can be arrogant or aggressive. But playing power is precisely the right approach for people who need someone to take over or make tough choices.

Think of a leader who interrupts the most talkative person to share their views or one who uses their right to say no to keep a project on track and a budget—the team as a whole benefit from asserting strength in these situations. Studies even show that power holders who do this are perceived to be competent and responsible.

Whenever you’re tented to play power-up, ask yourself first if it’s in your best interests or only for shows. You will know how to act based on the answer.


Playing power down is a way of connecting with people and building confidence:

Let’s return from the previous paragraph to the improved acting class. Again, the acting trainer would like to see a strong personality on stage. The character should not dominate the scene except this time.

Weird, okay? Well, not a skilled actor.

As we have just learned, power-up can be a good way to show respect for power and command. But this is not the only way to play a powerful role.

Rather than show the power of a character, actors sometimes do the other way around and play down power. It is deliberate to try, perhaps by not talking or disappearing into the background, to look less powerful. Just as power-up, power downplaying has its uses on the stage and in real life.

When powerful people play it down, they try to appear less intimidating and worthwhile than they are.

This is done, for example, by letting people make decisions or by requesting approval or assistance. These actions lessen the powerful person and enhance their knowledge and views.

Why would someone choose not to play power if power is the ability to control people and make things happen? One reason is that power down can be a way to satisfy people or to pass the buck. However, this is not the way to employ this tactic.

Power down is how leaders demonstrate a willingness to connect without controlling people. This is a way to show that those in power work together rather than maintain status. This will disarm people and foster confidence discovered by partners at the top venture capital firm and Sequoia Capital.

When recruiting a young woman CEO, they used the power and benefits attached to the company as their first instinct. This did not succeed, so they chose to play down their power. They met her wearing Toy Story costumes after learning that her prospective employer loved her dressing up as comic book characters. Looking so ridiculous on their account, these high-powered men demonstrated to the CEO that they would do anything to make her comfortable. On the spot, she was joining the team!

“The things we wear and carry on our bodies reinforce shared realities about who we are to ourselves.”

Deborah Gruenfeld

The use of imagination, supplements, and costumes is a powerful way to play a new role:

Imagine this: you were finally promoted to senior manager after years of paying your dues. Suddenly, you have to guide a team, and the older people expect that you will challenge them if necessary. But while you’ve worked hard on this promotion, you don’t know you’re ready for that promotion. You don’t feel like a senior manager, after all.

It is very much like what occurs in a new role for an actor. They have scripts and stories to learn and must fully encompass the part, although it doesn’t feel familiar. Fortunately, there are several tricks that the actors have to help in getting them into the character.

To succeed in a new role, you must act in ways that may appear unusual. A way to make this convincing is using version of Stanislavsky’s method, the brand of Russian actor, producer, and director Konstantin Stanislavski.

Stanislavski encouraged actors to look at the world on and off the stage from their characters’ perspectives. Following his advice, numerous actors imagine things happening “as if” to their characters. This is known as The Magic If exercise, which was helpful when the author kept her composure as a court witness.

While vulnerable, the author concentrated on a TV character who defined himself as strong and fearless. The author imagined that if she were that character, she would dress and carry herself. This helped her overcome her fears and act with the confidence anticipated by the defense team.

The next time you’re not ready to play a new role, imagine how you’d behave if you were exactly what that role was and what it was.

The trick of another actor is to use costumes and advice for a particular role. Dressing and carrying bits of advice differently affects the way people act and how others react to them.

For example, a senior manager can walk around with an important-looking notebook or dress him more confidently. Indeed, the phrase “suit up,” now commonly used to prepare for an important task, has such an effect.


Prioritize the work and mission of the team to play a supporting role well:

When you imagine a career as an actor, what do you think? You aren’t alone if it’s the best billing in each production. Most people want to be the show’s star – the important one with more power.

But not all of us can play the lead like not all of us are the boss at work. We have separate roles instead: leading players, cast support, managers, and subalterns.

Everyone – including the supporters – has to play their part for these settings to work as they should. Those who support their own roles have the power, which means that they know how to nail the part.

There is usually a significant objective that everyone works towards in any group or organization. Each role is aimed at bringing that goal closer.

And yet, people often see subordinate roles as steps towards something more significant. It’s an error. Your aim should be to produce positive results for the group when you play a role.

This attitude earns you the confidence of peers and older people and may also lead to greater future chances. Moreover, you can easily spot roles with impact potentials when you are focused on the mission and not on your status.

Sheryl Sandberg learned this from the chief operating officer for Facebook, who almost missed the opportunity to join Google because she felt that the role was too small. The advice that changed her mind was simple yet straightforward: you don’t ask who to sit on; you take it on board when a seat is offered on a rocket ship.

You can also build trust through priority-setting your tasks or your craft in addition to focusing on the mission. In doing so, you demonstrate that it is more important than recognition that you make a valuable contribution.

It is the same when you go to the team, possibly by spending extra hours volunteering to ensure your project meets its deadline. Attention is given to what the group needs and personal sacrifices are made to support these needs.


Treat the fear by reheating, warming, and not focusing on yourself when you assume a more significant, stronger role:

A lot of people dream of taking on strong roles, whether at work or in social groups. But it can be terrifying to step into those roles.

People often question their capabilities and worry about being judged not to use their power properly. For example, for fear of being held accountable, you could avoid making tough decisions. Or they could prefer them and finally make the wrong decisions.

Actors also have anxiety about performance but have ways to manage it. They can even apply their strategies to the scene’s roles.

How’s Carnegie Hall getting to you? Practice, practice, practice! It may be an old joke, but it’s still what actors are doing in their many rehearsals.

It becomes a habit if you do something more and more. Then you turn unfamiliar actions into naturally felt behavior by rehearsing what a powerful role requires. As a consequence of this, you begin to feel more confident.

But rehearsing is not just what you are planning to say. Incorporating as much detail as possible is more effective. For example, the author puts on her costume, pulls out her adhesives, and walks on stage when preparing for a conference. She becomes completely immersed in the actions.

Another strategy is to get physical if you have rehearsed but still feel concerned about an important event or other situation in which you need to exercise power. Warm-ups – such as stretching, walking, and breathing, can help eliminate nervous energy. Moreover, they distract you, making you feel calmer from anxious thoughts.

This is another way of treating actors’ nerves on stage, speaking of distractions.

If you are focused on how you feel or what others can think, it is difficult to get into character. Thus actors try to focus on other things, such as the actors on the stage. The author focuses on the people around him and how they might feel when using this technique, but you can also focus on sounds or objects all around you.


We have the power to avoid the victimization of bullies and to retrieve our stories when bullies come to us:

We hear today that people too often abuse power. Headlines that expose corrupt leaders and reveal great scandals indicate that power is the worst thing in humans.

But the problem is not power itself. In most cases, abusing power is insecure and therefore uses any power to feel better.

The desperate desire for power and control can make people bully, and when we encounter them, it is easy to be fully vulnerable. However, that does not mean we are indeed. By acting differently, we can claim our power and reverse the script.

We must find them before they strike if we do not want to be the target of bullies. This means that we know what to look for. For instance, we should avoid people who do not answer or criticize others excessively, even if they are nice to us.

We should also avoid places to empower bullies. Just as criminals frequently attack dark or quiet streets, power abuses tend to occur where no one else can see them. 

Regrettably, we can still become targets of bullies with these precautions. We should behave in ways that deter them in these cases.

One approach is to do something that does not affect them. Those who use abuse of power enjoy wrath, anger, or fear of their victims. But we become boring goals, and they continue if we don’t take the bait.

Another approach is to call lousy behavior calmly. This transforms our power and lets the perpetrator know that he is under surveillance.

If we become the victim of bullies despite our efforts to avoid or deter bullies, it is not necessary that we are a victim of them. By removing all the blame on ourselves, we can regain our ability.

Anyone who believes we have caused or deserved the abuse can target other bullies or lead to self-destruction. But it is easier to move experience and move forward with our lives when we realize that we’re not at fault.


To use power as a leader means to guide and look after others and to raise people who do the same:

“Great responsibility comes with great power.” The philosopher Voltaire, British politician Winston Churchill, and even Spiderman’s Uncle have received this quote! However, the message remains clear, although the source remains uncertain.

There is enormous power for people at the very top of an organization, and how they use them impacts everyone. It is to the advantage of those around them to be responsible for this power. The guidance must be set, a safe space created, and key roles must be considered.

In an organization, having guidance and a shared vision is important. Without them, it is almost impossible to clash with personal interests and productivity. Thus, as the most senior figure, a leader should use his power to define and strengthen the overall goal. This sets the stage for every individual to make a significant contribution.

But to make everybody their best contribution, the company must be an incentive location that is safe from abuses of power. The leader also has to do that. They should be an example of acceptable behavior and act quickly when power abuses happen.

One great example of this was Lieutenant General Jay Silveria’s reaction to the United States Air Force when African American cadets were racially slurred at the Air Force Academy. He gathered all 6500 cadets and professors and made it clear that the academy was no place to treat with dignity or respect those who cannot respect others.

As well as defending people, as did the General Lieutenant, leaders can create an excellent environment by promoting those who are also committed to using power effectively. Three qualities will distinguish these people.

First of all, the focus is on success. This means that a person’s focus is on learning and doing his job more than rising rapidly.

Warmth is the second quality to seek. Candidates should be concerned and prepared to help others succeed.

A mature approach to power is the third and final quality. A candidate should see power as a tool for helping others and know how to use it to serve the organization better.