Power Moves: Summary & Review (Adam Grant)

power moves book cover

Power Moves (2019), recorded on the sidelines of the Davos World Economic Forum, is a reflection on power dynamics and how power has changed in our modern world.


About The Author: Adam Grant is a psychologist and professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School.
He is also the author of Originals, co-authored with Sheryl Sandberg.

“Power Moves” is only available in audio format and is a mix of the author’s own speculation and the opinions and ideas of the people he interviewed.

Power is Fragile

Adam Grant starts “Power Moves” making the case that “power has changed”.

It used to be hierarchical and it could last for a long time.

Today it’s much more fragile, much more distributed, and much harder to defend.

It’s easier for start-ups to acquire power, but it’s harder to hold onto it.

Today’s power is the power of networks and ideas.
A Snapchat star and an Instagram celebrity have more reach than a corporate VP of communication. 
And the startups keep disrupting old businesses.

My Note: Partially true
I don’t fully agree here. 
See the criticism.

Power Signals Itself

People always send out power cues about their power -or the power they believe they should have-.

Grant’s talk about how people stand and move in a room, who gives way to whom in the sidewalk, and who looks the most like the biggest alpha male.

If you are interested to learn and understand the signs of power definitely check out the course here or these articles:

But also watch out for alpha-male posturing, which are the low-quality expressions of dominance and social one-upping.

It’s Not True That Power Corrupts… 

Adam Grant says that it’s not true that power corrupts.  
It just gives you more latitude to influence more people. So it always depends on who is looking for that power.

Power makes you more of what you already are

My Note: Only partially true
I don’t fully agree here.
Power can corrupt, and we must be watchful that it doesn’t corrupt those who are tasked to take care of the public good -and we must be watchful it doesn’t corrupt us, too-.

… But Power Does Change People Around You

Power might not change you, but it does change how people act around you.

Generally, people become more manipulative around powerful people and seek to be more liked.

They hide their flaws and, consciously or unconsciously, try to mimic the power person’s behavior and opinions.

This creates a problem for powerful individuals because they will have a harder time judging people’s character.
This is important because your power depends in large part on the people you surround yourself with.

So you must find ways to reliably vet the people around you without counting only -or too much- on your own analyses.

My Note: true, this is part of what being an “enlightened collaborator” is all about

For more on collaboration and manipulation, read:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

Givers VS Takers: Watch Out Who Gets The Power

Since different people seek power, we should be watchful of who gets the power.

Some people tend to be takers: they are in it for themselves.
The givers tend to use their power to foster the common good instead.

And there are Machiavellian leaders who, Adam Grant says, perform more poorly than givers.
Machiavellian politicians, for example, were able to get fewer bills passed and Machiavellian fund managers had lower returns.

How do you recognize if someone is a giver or taker?

Ask them about their colleagues and people will have a tendency to project their own personalities onto others.
So ask, for example, how common they think theft is within the company.

Also read:

The Three Categories to Assess Powerful Men

You could assess how people relate to power along these lines:

  • Dominance / power: they want to win and dominate others
  • Friendliness: they seek to make people around them comfortable
  • Achievement: getting things done, very effective in business, but less so in government as they tend to be hard-drivers who walk all over people

Examples include Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
There are much analysis on this website on both, check them out if you want to know more.

Women in Power Face More Difficulties

Women have it harder when it comes to power.

Both men and women use a double standard when assessing dominance and drive, and both genders are much more critical of driven and powerful women.

Among the solutions Adam Grant proposes:

  • Negotiate by giving more options
  • Ask leaders for advice to ingratiate them

Also read:

Employees Have More Power

Today’s employees have more options and knowledge, which gives them more power against employers.

Grant interviews David Solomon from Goldman Sachs, who candidly admits Goldman is hiring outside of Ivy League because those people tend to stay longer in the company.

To me, the difference was all in entitlement
Ivy League graduates thought they were entitled to Goldman and to any other top employers or opportunity. 

Graduates from average colleges instead felt like they had made it in Goldman and were grateful for the opportunity (and unexpected financial windfall).

Emotional Intelligence is The Future

Artificial intelligence and robots will soon revolutionize the way we work and interact.

Many will become jobless in occupations such as constructions, manual work, driving and, later on, technical skills such as coding as well.

But a robot that can connect people, build relationships, negotiate agreements or simply lead a meeting where emotions are running high is a long way off.

So the best bet for future employment is increasing your emotional intelligence.

Also read:

The ultimate test of power is how you treat people who don’t have power 
power moves book cover

Power Moves Criticism

Since the book is so relevant to this website, I will go through some of the bits I disagreed with:

The “be good to win” fallacy

Some passages reminded of “naive self help”.

The “today is different” narrative is poor analysis

One of the main concepts behind “Power Moves” is that today power is different.

But that’s such a typical narrative that I can’t take it seriously anymore. It feels as if anyone who hasn’t done a proper analysis just plop this old cliche’ that “today it’s different than before”.

As if “before” were a monolithic, homogenous construct that we can now compare to “today”.

I think it was Taleb, who said that at any time in history authors always said that “today is different”.
And it was certainly more dangerous and “risky” to be a Roman emperor than a modern country president.

The example of power being more fragile, such as GM risking bankruptcy, was also quite meaningless: companies have been going bust since the dawn of business (before the industrial revolution).

Does technology make old power less powerful? I think it can as easily make it more powerful

In an effort to prove that “today things are different” and “power is more fragile” one of the interviewees mentions military technology.

The most disruptive military technology, he says, have been:

  • Suicide bombers
  • Drones
  • Cyber attacks

And then he says these technologies don’t require many resources or a government.
Anyone can get the knowledge to acquire them.

Albeit there might be some truth, as a generalization that’s idiotic.

Where are the drones that people can easily acquire and build?
Drones are a huge power tool of the technologically advanced governments.

It’s what allows technologically dominant countries to spy and wage war at smaller costs and without risking their own troop’s lives.

And who carried the most successful cyber attacks?
It’s mostly organized groups, often government-backed.

Furthermore, technology can be used by governments and powerful organizations to spy on people and keep track of them -which is already being done-.

Some superficial, very politically correct analysis

Ultimately, I found “Power Moves” to lack true depth.

Sure, it wasn’t meant to be a long dissertation, but at least some mention to discording voices wasn’t going to hurt.

Talking about women in power, for example, it suggests it’s unfair that women are judged differently.

And that’s a fair position to take.

But why do women get judged differently?
That’s the question that a deeper analysis should answer.

And while “Power Moves” embraces political policies obliging companies to hire a minimum number of women in corporate boards, there is no mention to the possible drawback of these policies, or why one might disagree with them.

That makes not only for a more one-sided analysis, but also for a poorer analysis.


“Power Moves” reviewed by The Power Moves :). 

I first realized about the existence of this book when analytics showed that people were ending up on my website after searching for “Power Moves summary”, “Power Moves Adam Grant” and similar.

And then a friend of mine told “hey, have you heard about that book called like your website” :D.

So finally I could get around to read Adam Grant’s work.

And I liked “Power Moves”.
Especially the interview format and the analysis of trends like robotics and artificial intelligence.

But it’s not very deep on actual power and power dynamics, and I disagreed with a few conclusions.

Also read:

Get the book on Amazon.

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