10 Ways to Maintain Power When Executing Orders

Saying “no” to someone can be difficult.

But even more difficult is to say “yes” and execute their tasks, orders, or requests without losing power.

In this article, you will learn how to execute tasks and orders, while maintaining power.

1. Execute With Low-Effort: Sprezzatura

Sometimes, you’ll have to do what someone else says. But if you execute high-power, you’re still good

A good chunk of your power loss is in the effort it takes you to execute.

As per power dynamics principles, the person who expends more effort is lower power.

So an effective approach to minimize your loss is to execute as effortlessly as possible (ie.: while expending as little effort as possible).
Castiglione in his guide to The Book of The Courtier, would call it “Sprezzatura”, or to execute with a certain nonchalance, as if it were easy, simple, and “no big deal” for you.

Ideally, you expend even less effort than the individual assigning you the task or giving you an order.


Some time ago I was in the Egyptian Museum taking a picture of a newly arrived sarcophagus.

Superintendent: (moving around, agitated, seemingly making a big deal out of it) no pictures, please no pictures
Me: (nods, lowers the phone, keeps watching the scene)

Yes, I obeyed his order.

But still, little power loss for me because he was expending a lot of effort while my obedience was unreactive, and very low effort (high sprezzatura).

If I had said something like “yes sir”, moved out of the way, apologized or justified, that would have been higher investment, and made me look far more submissive and lower power.

See Power University for the “pro tip” and example.

2. Change A Detail: Strategic Semi-Disobedience

With this technique:

You “go along with the larger plan”, but disobey a smaller detail to display your freedom and agency.

The bare minimum level is to show just enough free will to sub-communicate that you’re not a puppet that moves exactly as the puppeteer wants.
Ideally, you show instead that you’re an empowered individual with his own freewill, and with a say in the decision-making.

For example:

Him: welcome to the meeting guys. (looking at you and waving towards the chair) Please sit here
You: thank you, I prefer this other chair (let’s get going)

You don’t challenge their leadership in any significant way, but take the liberty to choose your own seat.
Overall, you’re still attending and participating: you’re conforming with what’s most important.
So if they insist on you sitting on a specific chair, it’s them who look petty and “weird”.

Notice that if you add “let’s get going”, that is your own leadership power move.
Now you are the results-oriented guy who hasn’t got time to waste and who is tasking them.

And now you’re ahead: they tried to lead you, and failed.

2.2. Improve A Detail

Better yet, rather than simply changing a detail, you can improve a detail.

Ideally, you change something that self-frames you as more driven, empowered, goal-oriented, and leader-like.

For example:

Him: welcome to the meeting guys. (looking at you and waving towards the chair) Please sit here
You: thank you, I’ll take this other one closer to the whiteboard: I want to get all the details

Now you’re the proactive and attentive guy who wants to be on top of things (most likely, to make things happen, which is very leader-like).

Also see:

3. Agree To Execute, But On Your Terms

Sometimes you don’t have enough power to reject a task…

But you have enough power to do it on your terms.
For example, you can decide when and how.

In those cases, it’s usually a lot better to publicly externalize you’re going to do if… But on your terms.

For example, if you’re explaining or presenting something, people have the right to ask you or challenge your ideas.
And especially so your boss.
But you have enough latitude to decide when and how to answer.

For example:

Colleague: (raises his hand and interrupts your presentation) I don’t understand, can you please explain why more adspend makes sense during this recession

This is a challenging question that can easily disempower you.

If you stop to answer, you let random people dictate the timing of your content delivery, and how you engage with the audience. Plus, if you stop and answer, you can easily sound like you’re justifying to your colleague.
On the other hand, you can’t just say “no” or you look antisocial and like a really bad team player.
Hence a good solution:

You: absolutely, let me finish this point and we then can proceed to the questions

Same With Your Boss, But More Power-Protecting

If it’s a boss, you want to make sure you power protect him more.

For example:

  • Make a bigger display of accepting the task (ie. “for sure”)
  • Show that you’re changing your behavior to accommodate him (ie.: “I quickly finish this”)
  • Add a rationale for your personal changes (ie.: “I can’t switch tasks right now because otherwise we’ll lose 2h of work“)
  • Add that you will get there “fast” (ie.: “but I’ll speed up and do it right after“)

Boss: can you please get to the results

This is bad if you still had an important point to make, or a point that makes you look good.
You want to deliver that part of your presentation, and also display some personal power.
But you want to keep a good relationship with your boss.
So you agree with him, say that you will quickly finish your intro, and then get there “right away”:

You: sure thing, I’ll quickly finish this point, and then get there right away (then jumpt to the main point and talk faster to show that you’re respecting his request)

4. Repeat The Task With “I Will… “: Self-Tasking

I love this one.

Simple, yet genius.

It works like this:

Instead of saying “OK” or confirming your execution repeat the task as if it were your own self-generated decision.

And bonus points if you change a detail.

Him: put the report in the folder by EOB please
You: I’ll upload the report (<—- self-tasking)
by 12pm (<—- improve a detail)
Cheers (<—-closes the conversation and gets back to work)

Or you can improve a detail to seem more detail-oriented, such as “I’ll upload the report in the appropriate folder”.

And it doesn’t even look like you’re fighting them.

Cool, eh?

5. Power Align & Justify The Task

Simple, yet very effective.

A great example from XH:

Tasker: Could you write down in a document the findings of your research?
You: It will bring us in sync, good idea. I’ll let you all know once done and share it with the team

Such as, instead of fighting the idea or task, you embrace it (power align or “pacing”) and explain why it’s a good idea (justify the execution).
Aligning removes the top down, “he tasks / you execute” frame, while the justification increases your agency, freewill, and leadership points.

A specific form of power alining is also:

5.2. Pace & Lead: Shift The Focus On The Bigger Goal

They ask to move the pawn… You think how it will get you to the king

This technique is very leader-like.

It works like this:

You start from the micro-level of the task, and put it in the macro-level perspective of how it helps you achieve the bigger goals.

For example:

Her: put the report in the folder by EOB please
You: yeah, we need this customer, let’s go get him (<— it’s not about “putting the report in the folder”, which is monkey-type of work, it’s about “winning the customer”)

Or even more power-movey:

Her: put the report in the folder by EOB please
You: much sooner than EOB, we need to move quick with this account, I really want to get them. I’ll give you a heads up as soon as it’s there

Now you’re not following anymore, you’re the one who drives things forward.

6. Execute & Re-Task Them

The general principle is:

If they task you and you task them back for something else, it’s a draw.

So every time you accept the task but tell them to do something for you, you generally lose no power.

And if you add some other techniques, you can even end up on top.
For example:

Her: put the report in the folder by EOB please
You: I’m going to put it there right now (<— “improve a detail” technique),
please check it by EOB (<— retask),
I want to send it to the customer within today (<—- final part of “pace and lead” and focus on the bigger strategic goal)

These next techniques work particularly well with informal authority and hosts (see Power University):

7. Gain Time: Executive Delay

A major power loss happens when they task you, and you act right away.

Immediate execution feels like an owner-to-dog exchange.

On the other hand, delayed execution re-empowers you because it sub-communicates that you decide when to act and displays your own agency in the important dimension of timing.

So whenever you can wait before you execute the task, wait.

For example:

Organizer: please have a sit
You: (still standing) yeah, thank you, I look forward to the training, do you also provide us with the presentation later on?
(chats a little bit longer, and then sits)

Even 10 seconds or a couple of back-and-forths will do.
And you don’t necessarily need to talk.
You can go back to your desk to take something, take in the environment, or check your phone (just don’t make it a habit!).
Whatever you do, it doesn’t even necessarily have to make sense. As a matter of fact, it’s OK if they get that you didn’t sit on purpose. The message you send is: “don’t order me around, or I’ll do the exact opposite just to spite you”.

Reverse of The Law: Case Study

Look at this example from the former Charlie and Ben Podcast:

Ben: “Call Her Daddy” is the name of the podcast, you don’t know the name of the girls
Charlie: so for you who don’t know “Call Her Daddy” is the name of the show, (back to Ben) you can tell the story you know better than I
Ben: (answering right away) yeah sure, so Call Her Daddy (keeps on telling the story)

Ben is great.
In this scene though he loses some power because Charlie interrupts him, starts explaining the story, then tasks him to explain it himself.
Ben replies right away, as if on cue.
The story he says also feels like the exact same he wanted to say before Charlie interrupted him -so it feels even more like a useless interruption that Ben didn’t check-.

See Power University for the solution.

8. Power Align 2: Agree With The Task Rationale

Similar to the previous “power align”.

The principle is that if you can make your obedience seem self-generated, then it’s not obedience at all.

So for example, if they invite you to go inside:

Host: Let’s go back inside and finish our business talk. (invites to go through the door first) After you
You: Yeah man, I’m freezing here, let’s go inside

Now the frame is that you wanted to go back inside.
Still there is some power loss, but minimizing the power loss can still be a good result.

9. Break The “They Task-You Obey” Flow

task execution broken chain

Similar principle as “executive delay” and buying time.

But rather than simply waiting, you take a more proactive approach.

For example, if the host invites you to go inside, you turn to someone else and ask a quick question. Or you comment on something. Then, after you broke the flow, you can even add “OK, let’s go” to “steal the lead” (but please limit this to extreme circumstances as it reeks of annoying game-playing).

You can also do the same directly to the host.
For example:

Host: let’s go inside now
You: yeah, sure (this is social grease, your next sentence flows more naturally and he’s more likely to comply). But first, did you get what I mean though when I say…

As soon as they reply, you “broke” the task-execution chain, and then you can start walking inside without losing power.

Basically, the format here is:

  1. They task you
  2. You break the flow and either open a new topic, task back with a smaller request (like a question), or even simply just make a comment
  3. Lead (Optional), and take charge of doing what they initially proposed to do

10. Disempower Them Back

The concept is basic “power accountancy“.

It works like this:

Their disempowerment to you – your disempowerment to them = net effect.

In simple words: their behavior is disempowering you.
But if you disempower them back at an equal level, then it’s a draw.

Of course, you must be tactful with this.
You don’t want to end up in a vicious circle of lose-lose -a “turkey spiral”- and you may not want to be too obvious or direct to ruin relationships or lead to an escalation.

But alas, sometimes it’s a good option -and sometimes you don’t even have a choice but to attack back-.

There are many ways of neutralizing power-taking behavior with counter-power-taking behavior.

When dealing with tasking and when you want to be more subtle, you can for example take action while looking away, as if you had disdain for him.
See for example McGregor using this technique:

Security: (very direct, quite dominant) make a left, make a left, that way
McGregor: (doesn’t acknowledge him, doesn’t say “OK”, and doesn’t nod in the slightest. He just turns and keeps on going)

In groups, you can purposefully ignore, move somewhere else, or start a conversation with someone else and cut him out.

For more on that host type of “kind but dominant” behavior, see:

Tasking Power Dynamics

I highly recommend this:

For proper learning and internalizing the skills and becoming smoother and natural, focus more on learning the foundational dynamics, than the techniques.

These are the power dynamics of tasking and executing:

  1. Someone tasks you
  2. They self-frame as higher status than you and “above you” because they can task you, and you execute
  3. Their power and status are liable to increase

However, until you execute, nothing is set yet.

See it like a gambit, a power move.
And whether or not it pays off, it really depends on you.

So let’s see:

IF you execute, you lose power

  1. You confirm you’re below them, since you technically submit to their will and expend effort to do what they want
  2. Your power and status decrease compared to theirs, since people who give tasks tend to be bosses or higher status, and those who execute tend to be lower status

And what determines the size of your power loss are:

  • Tone of the order: the more dominant, aggressive, and disrespectful the order, the more power you lose. Conversely, the more power-protecting the order, the more power you keep
  • Tone of the acknowledgment: the more ostentatious and submissively you receive and accept, the more power you lose.
    This is why the military demands cadets and grunts to reply “yes sir” fast and loud
The military seeks extreme acceptance of orders and authority for maximum control (and max personal disempowerment)
  • Personal agency in the decision-making: the more top-down the decision, the more power you lose.
    Conversely, the more you participate in the decision, the more power you maintain
  • Personal alignment with the decision: the more you disagree while still executing, the bigger the loss
  • Personal gain/loss with the task: the more you lose with the task, the bigger the power loss (and your personal loss).
    Conversely, the more you gain, the more power you maintain (and the more you gain personally)
  • Speed of execution: the faster you execute, the more power you lose
  • Effort of execution: the more effort you need to expand, the more power you lose.
    Also, the lower effort their order, the more power you lose
  • Usefulness of the task: the more “useless” the task is, the more power you lose because there was no reason to do it, and you still ended up doing it

So our techniques affect those foundational “power levers” of tasking to maintain as much power as possible.

If you DO NOT execute, you may gain power

  1. You reject their power move you and sub-communicate that you’re either equal, above them, or that you’re a socially dominant, high-power person, since people who are neither of those do not have the social capital and/or personal resolve to reject tasks
  2. Your power and status increase

However, we say you “may” gain power because if an escalation ensues and then you end up executing anyway, you lose even bigger (you lose the “power showdown”).

Also, if you don’t execute but, say, lose access to the group, to your job, or lose a friend who could have added value to your life, then you may “gain” some short-term power on that specific exchange, but in net balance, you truly lost.

There are ways to do it, but you need precise skills and techniques.

See Power University for those.

This is a preview from Power University. PU alumni please go here for the more practical lesson