Does business school teach people how to assert power, before they’re actually ready to be leaders?

Last week Trinity Ventures had a CEO leadership dinner, which included a really great talk by Dr. Deborah Gruenfeld, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Dr. Gruenfeld’s talk was titled, “Acting with Power”. She explained how behavioral cues affect perceived levels of power.

  • You can demonstrate authority when communicating with someone through body language. For example, expanding your body to take up as much space as possible, making direct eye contact, and speaking slowly.
  • Even if you are in a situation with power, there might be times you want to “play low” in order to get what you want. You bring yourself down to the level of the other person. 

There was some role playing, including a situation where someone played a manager in need of work and someone else played the assistant. By not calling the assistant by name, by not looking them in the eye, by not even waiting for a response before storming off, the manager could assert power over the assistant and get stuff done.

Dr. Gruenfeld teaches this stuff to business school students at Stanford. So I left with one big question:

Should business school students be taught how to act with power, before they have earned it?

I was never formally taught how to communicate with people, regardless of power level. I learned from watching my dad, through my managers at Apple, through trial and error. I still don’t claim to be great at it, but I learn more each time I speak. If I talk to a customer at my dad’s restaurant, a teller at a bank, or a bouncer at a Las Vegas club, I act differently to try to get what I want.

Last year when we bought our house, the then-property manager of the unit was terrible, he almost ruined the sale. Yet I played down to him, bought him a six pack of beer, often blamed mistakes on my lack of knowledge, always gave him the benefit of the doubt so that he would stay on my side and help me. On the inside, I knew he was a moron.


It seems wrong to me that business school students are being taught how to act in situations they have never been in, how to assert their power over people, perhaps before they even have any.

Silicon Valley startups have a bias against business school graduates. As engineers, we like to think that great innovation means coming up with interesting ideas and actually building them. Young business school students sometimes come off too strong, too cocky. Young product managers talk down to engineers. Could classes like this one be causing that?

Business school should stick to teaching the mechanics of running a successful business as much as possible, and leave the psychology out of it. The interpersonal part of running a company is best learned organically, with experience.

Simply teaching people how to assert power over people and then sending them off into the real world seems a lot like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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  1. Being able to communicate well seems to be a skill that takes a lifetime to learn. If they’ve got some class at B-school to address that, why not? We need all the help we can get. maybe the word "power" could be exchanged with "effective communication?"

  2. Alexa, the talk (and class at Stanford) was definitely about power. If it was simply about effective communication, then I’d agree it’s a great skill to have and a great class to take

  3. "Should business school students be taught how to act with power, before they have earned it?"Sure, why not? There’s no harm in learning stuff before you need it so that you’re better prepared. Taking a negotiations class, for example, will help you pick up on certain patterns when you’re in the midst of a negotiation. Having seen both sides of this, I can say that the education alone is no substitute (nor makes you an expert) in the subject, but if you are educated in this area, it can help you minimize making really stupid mistakes.Where a few MBAs run into problems, and create a bad name for the rest of the MBAs, are those who feel they are entitled to power simply because they have obtained an MBA. Power is something that is gained over time through merit, money, and/or respect from subordinates, peers, and superiors.Your posts seems to suggest that you’re better off being ignorant on the topic of how to act with power than not.

  4. as a business school student, i agree, we are totally made to feel like CEOs before we’ve done a thing to prove ourselves. so we’re cocky and power-hungry and take it where we can get it. however, it seems the engineers are making the better decisions and have better ideas overall

  5. """Business school should stick to teaching the mechanics of running a successful business as much as possible, and leave the psychology out of it."""This is an interesting thought that I don’t agree with. Management is simply the art and science of achieving results through people. If you broke management down into its major components, I believe that you would find that management is mostly rooted in psychology with a sliver of economics. If you leave the psychology out of it, there isn’t much left.(X-posted to HN)

  6. Brad, great point here, "MBAs who feel they are entitled to power simply because they have obtained an MBA"I think there’s a fine line between teaching communication and negotiation, and teaching power. I guess the specific name of the talk and the specific example with the assistant rubbed me the wrong way.

  7. Excellent post. Implementers of MBA tactics for exerting influence, whose sole merit is graduating from B school, succeed only in annoying those with sufficient EQ to read these techniques. The majority of tech entrepreneurs I have met are sharp individuals. When young B school graduates play with their watch, sign with an initial, etc in an attempt to wield power, its detracts from their perceived intelligence. Entrepreneurs are left thinking "Is this the only thing they have to contribute?", the relationship is undermined and the venture suffers.

  8. Sachin wrote: "the specific name of the talk and the specific example with the assistant rubbed me the wrong way"Me too. It’s as though the concept of "servant leadership" had never existed. Almost 40 years ago, Robert Townsend (former CEO of Avis) wrote in Up the Organization that the real job of management is to figure out what’s standing in the way of their people, remove these obstacles, and watch their staff accomplish great things. You can tell a lot about people from the way they treat those who have less power than them – especially wait staff, cleaning staff, etc. Much of what’s wrong in the world is ultimately traceable to egotism, narcissism, and selfishness. "Managers do things right, leaders do the right things."

  9. This may be helpful in diagnosing problems w/MBA programsMBA: Mostly bloody awful

  10. Sachin, allLet me give you another side of this. I’m currently an evening MBA student (work full time, study for 3 yrs) and am formerly an engineer who had the exact same sentiment towards MBA as exhibited in your post and in many of the comments above.First – there is certainly group of people who use their MBA as a badge and use it as such. You can spot them when they jump into a situation with an attitude of "Stand back everyone!! I have an MBA!" and generally exhibit their badge. These are to be avoided since they miss the point of what they’re learned.The program that I’m is comprised predominantly of engineers and scientists. Many of them are getting their MBAs because they recognized that being a great engineer or scientist does not make you into a person who makes good "business" decisions or who knows how to run a business. This can mean all sorts of things such as making decisions that make financial sense, making decisions that are consistent with a company strategy or knowing how to approach the market with an invention. How many times have you read of examples of engineers or scientists who come up with something interesting but lose an argument with "those stupid business people?" In many such scenarios this is due to the engineers’ and scientists’ inability to effectively communicate their ideas and their inability to make a stand and to defend their point. Scientists and Engineers approach their work as art, which I think is beautiful. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not see it as such, and you have to realize that you do operate in this rest of the world. So if you want your art to be noticed and to be seen rather than have it exist in a vacuum, you need to know how to do exactly that.That’s what I and many of my classmates came to the program to learn. On the specific point of learning influence, you must realize that book knowledge can be amplified or undermined by weak human interaction. If you don’t recognize that, you will have many frustrated experiences in your professional life. So, don’t fall into the trap of blanketing a group. Dmitriy (we have a mutual friend, Yan). PS: this is coming from a guy who one day was walking through a company hall and wondered "What are ALL these people doing? None of them write code! They’re all useless! How many bean counters do we really need? All of them are just dead wood riding on engineering work!!" That was a turning point for me.

  11. It is mainly a cultural thing. In the East, even a great leader is expected to be humble. A leader would bow down to a friar without any qualms about his self worth. Humility is valued more. Here in the West, it is the opposite. You have to constantly project some power (even if you didn’t have any), to be taken seriously – "Always look in the eye, firm hand shake, take up more space" etc body language training. Also, you are trained to fake humility ("play low") to get what you want. It is all about "winning" in the end – and someone has to lose for you to win.Remember all the brouhaha about Obama bowing down to foreign leaders? You can be sure those photos will be all over the campaign ads in 2012.

  12. Sachin,Being powerful and acting powerful are two different things. I was taught how to act with power as well, but the lessons are useless without the experience to back them up. Savvy business partners will see through the whole act. It’d be more useful if the Stanford professor point that out, or else the lessons will be lost.

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