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.
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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