There cannot be many business school academics with a hotline to Hollywood. But Dacher Keltner, a US psychology professor who lectures senior managers on how to behave at work, has become something of a go-to guy for Tinseltown since advising on Inside Out, the Pixar film that laid bare the inner turmoil of Riley, its 11-year-old star.
Prof Keltner is in demand for his work on decoding emotions, which has culminated in a book explaining how people gain and lose power, based on the studies of executive behaviour he has undertaken over 20 years. After our interview, he is due to fly to Los Angeles to meet the director behind a reboot of The Invisible Man. “He’s interested in what happens to somebody when no one else can see their face and their facial expressions, which is a very poignant question. Without our emotions, it’s very hard to feel like you’re connected to the world,” says Prof Keltner.
The academic from the University of California, Berkeley is preoccupied with understanding how people interact and, in particular, how that affects how they gain, or lose, power.
Five centuries after Niccolò Machiavelli shaped our cultural references to how people rise up the ranks, the author has designs on the legacy of the Italian Renaissance writer, aiming to dilute it with a theory of collaborative power trumping coercive power.
“I want to move beyond Machiavellianism, with a message about the power for good,” he says, oozing the sort of west coast optimism found at the likes of Facebook and Google (both tech groups have been consulting clients of his, the former seeking advice during an overhaul of its emojis).
The argument of his book, The Power Paradox, is that people gain power not through coercion, as in16th century Florence, but by being socially intelligent and empathetic, or in other words: nice. And yet, having power and privilege, he writes, “leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive and out-of-control sociopaths”.
This is behaviour that Prof Keltner thinks the powerful must change if they want to stay on top. His research — he heads Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center as well as teaching at its Haas School of Business — has found that executives who behave better, treating their teams well and respecting those beneath them, make more money. It is that simple.
“If leaders stay focused on the people they lead and their interests, then they do well and their bottom line is better.”
What’s more, altruistic executives keep their jobs. “In almost every kind of workplace organisation, if you really have a deep interest in other people, you’ll keep your power.”
He believes women are helping to drive the change. “Women tend to be more interested in collaborative power. There are studies to verify that. I think we will see the nature of power shift as women get into power.”
Like women, older people also tend to value working with others more, “raising this interesting possibility that the people who really like to abuse power are of a certain age, and with experience comes a wiser and more collaborative approach.”
Asked whether women at the top are nicer than their male equivalents, Prof Keltner laughs, but he thinks there is something in it based on the female executives that take his classes — women from the “management bubbles of eBay, and Apple, and construction companies, and hospitals, and parts of government”. Yet this is only true up to a point. He says: “In general, we find that, regrettably, women in power tend to be vulnerable to the same abuses as men. They may not harass somebody sexually, but they will be prone to impulsive behaviour, uncivil behaviour; they’ll stop empathising as much.”
Prof Keltner’s work differs from that of Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, another California-based academic, who argues, rather more pragmatically, that employees just need to accept that leaders are immodest and prone to lying.
Asked whether he is detached from the real world, Prof Keltner runs through a list of people’s faults once they get a promotion, from swearing more to not respecting anyone beneath them. “When I teach this stuff to leaders, I’m like, ‘This is what power can do.’ They smile, and say, ‘Oh, I did just that the other week! I should have tempered my language!’”
What, they all see the error of their ways, just like that? “Usually, when I teach 40 people, there will be three or four who’ll say, ‘Come on! You don’t gain power by being kind!’ They tend to be more Machiavellian types who think you have to screw people over.”
He cites other business school academics interested in teaching ethics, such as Michael Norton at Harvard, as evidence of “a groundswell of a movement”, triggered, he thinks, by “too much greed” and rampant executive compensation. “We’re moving back a little bit towards an interest in the “common good,” he says.