Photograph by Eric Herchaft/Getty

Why Leaders Must Give Away Power in Order to Keep Influence

May 18, 2016

For the past 20 years, I have studied a deep irony in our social lives: the power paradox. The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.

For example, studies find that as we enjoy elevated power or a rise in the social class ladder, we are more likely to lie, cheat, shoplift, eat impulsively, have sexual affairs, violate the rules of the road, take candy from kids, and communicate in disrespectful ways, all acts that diminish dramatically our capacity for influence.

When I teach the power paradox to leaders in tech, science, finance, government, education, and law, they offer knowing smiles about this irony of influence. Leaders of different kinds tell me uniformly—and often with head-shaking bewilderment—that the greatest surprise of leadership is the ramped up demands of engaging face-to-face in the lives of the people they lead. This is all the more true in the work we do today. Our work involves more complex, multifaceted, and multicultural teams. Organizations are shifting from more vertical to more horizontal forms of power, where strategy and action emerge more organically in collaborating teams.

It’s a challenging time to lead, to say the least, and one where the soft skills of leadership—staying connected and maintaining the trust of others—are harder and more demanding than ever before.

Thankfully, science has uncovered one soft skill that proves to be essential to enjoying enduring power. It is this power principle: we keep and grow power by giving it away. I’ll say it again, enduring power is found in giving it away. Your power expands as you empower others.

Different scientific inquiries have converged on this power principle. For example, in economic games literature this principle goes by the name of competitive altruism. Competitive altruism refers to how people rise in power through acts of generosity. Relevant studies find that as people share more, they actually rise in the esteem of others and enjoy elevated power. By contrast, people who defect on others or horde resources suffer stinging losses to their reputation and a reduced capacity to influence.

Far removed from these laboratory studies of competitive altruism, anthropologists have uncovered a similar dynamic in who rises in the ranks in small hunter-gatherer societies, living in the conditions in which we evolved for over 200,000 years. It is not the selfish Machiavellian who prevails. No, once again status and power go to the individual who shares the most, in the form of food, labor, and the provision of protection and care. The great givers, this science shows, enjoy better status, increased mating opportunities, and healthier kids as well.

This should not surprise: groups are served well by individuals who direct resources to the group, and collectively encourage such magnanimity through directing esteem and affording power to the more generous.

New studies in social psychology have also pinpointed how we gain power by giving it away. The simple story is that when we act in prosocial fashion, by sharing or expressing gratitude, those acts stir others to greater collaboration, which set in motion downstream social processes that bolster our reputation, a critical foundation of our power. I’ve diagrammed this dynamic in the figure below, and illustrate with an example.

power paradox

At the top is a manager—in our example Kelly—who acts in a prosocial fashion toward a research specialist, Jennifer. In the example it’s a heartfelt expression of gratitude. But it could also be giving praise or directing resources to Jennifer or acknowledging her good work publicly at a team meeting. Giving in this fashion, studies show, will lead Kelly herself to feel delight through the activation of dopamine rich reward circuits in the brain (the second bubble).

The expression of gratitude, or other acts of generosity, will then stir Jennifer to be more generous and collaborative in subsequent interactions with other members of their team (the third bubble). Studies find that recipients of generosity, or gratitude, or cooperation, themselves become more prosocially oriented in subsequent interactions.

Now things get even more interesting in our fourth bubble. Kelly’s original expression of gratitude is likely to surface in team members’ water cooler conversations and minor acts of gossip. These conversations, my own research has shown, enable the team to form an opinion about the reputation of Kelly in her leadership position, as someone likely to advance or undermine their interests. In our example, her reputation is positive, and positive reputations themselves, studies show, lead to opportunities for innovation and influence.

People also convey more esteem to those who have positive reputations in social networks (the fifth and final bubble), which inspires Kelly to further acts of empowering generosity. Kelly’s initial expression of gratitude, seemingly inconsequential, ripples through her team, creating a foundation for enduring power.

Power can indeed lead to paradoxical and ironic effects, in which the very skills we lean on to gain power vanish in our own sense of success and superiority. We can avoid such falls from power through giving our power away, in minor acts of gratitude, generosity, praise, and collaboration.

Dacher Keltner is director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (Penguin Press, 2016).

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