In Cade Massey’s alumni webinar last year, “Increasing Impact: Why Good Ideas Fail and Why Yours Don’t Need To,” the Wharton People Analytics faculty co-director and operations, information, and decisions Practice Professor shared five beliefs that undermine our impact. One that particularly intrigued me is that we believe in our natural way of influencing others, and thus we don’t use our hard, soft, and smart power. Hard power — defined as the strength and authority you have in the organization — strikes me as one you have the least control over. How do you use hard power when your place on the organizational chart is fixed?  And how does hard power come into play when you work with your peers who presumably have the same level and amount of hard power you do? I reached out to Cade to learn more.

Hard power has two components, he says. First is might, which is your willingness to impose cost on other people to get your way. Second is ethos, which is why people believe you, and is informed by such things as reputation, character, and credentials.

Cade advises keeping your “credentials in context” and turning them up or down as opposed to just being on or off.

Might speaks to your place on the organizational chart — the more authority you have, the more might you wield. High level supervisors wield a lot of power as soon as they walk into a room and can often turn their ideas into action simply because they are in charge. The rest of us usually have a longer journey to make things happen because we have peers to work with. In those cases, Cade advises that you consider exercising your might in relationship-preserving ways.

This explanation gave me a research-backed understanding of a technique I have long used: asking questions to guide a conversation in the direction I wanted it to go. About ten years into my career, I worked at a place where the hard power the leaders wielded exacted a pretty high cost on all of us. Hence, it was particularly important that my peers and I engineer progress as a team. One day, I asked a colleague with great institutional knowledge — aka a “historian” — a series of questions about the marketing strategy I wanted to implement. At the end, he said, “You are hard to read as you ask questions that get me thinking in new ways. I now see how you moved us in the direction you wanted to go. Even more importantly, I agree with it because you had me create the logic from my own vantage point.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but my collaborative, positive approach fits Cade’s relationship-preserving guideline.

Ethos, the other element of hard power, addresses why people should believe and trust you. Again, Cade advises that you do so in a relationship-preserving way, starting with keeping your “credentials in context” and turning them up or down as opposed to just being on or off. For example, Cade shared a time when his credential as a Wharton professor needed to be “turned up” to ensure others knew that was part of his power. For me, I am part of the senior leadership in External Affairs. Referring to my peers and boss that way during conversations with the team I oversee always made me uncomfortable. So, we came up with a nickname — an acronym of the senior leaders’ first initials — that we use instead. As a result, I’ve turned down my hard power as part of the senior team.

Overall, Cade’s primary message to me was that these tools exist, and we should use them intentionally. The vocabulary of hard, soft, and smart power, when applied in relationship-preserving ways, will help ensure your good ideas thrive.


Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.