Nilofer Merchant: ‘Power is not simply personal, it’s profoundly social’
Before Nilofer Merchant was an author with a Future Thinker Award under her belt, a CEO, or a board member for public and private companies, she worked in admin for Apple.
From an outsider’s perspective, it certainly doesn’t seem like the most exciting job that she has ever worked in. Despite that, it could be argued that Merchant’s experiences at the bottom of Apple’s ranks are what shaped her entire career. Since working for Apple, Merchant has shared, developed and executed her ideas to help a number of companies net $18bn from products she helped launch.
At Inspirefest 2019, Merchant presented a talk on powering innovation, with reference to her 2017 book, The Power of Onlyness.
Merchant’s story begins at Apple. As mentioned earlier, she spent some time working in admin for the company before she had even earned her MBA. One day, she was invited to a brainstorming meeting by her boss.
Excited to use this as an opportunity to have some input, Merchant went home to research and prepare. When she returned to work, ready to impress her co-workers and share her suggestions, she was left pretty disappointed.
In her Inspirefest keynote, she said: “I did all of the homework I could do, I showed up to that meeting ready. And no one made any eye contact with me whatsoever. I might as well have stayed in the parking lot, because it was clear I really didn’t need to be there.”
Merchant left that meeting questioning what had gone wrong. Had she not leaned in enough to get her voice heard? Had she been too eager? It took her a long time to realise exactly what the issue was, but she did walk away from that meeting very aware of the fact that the only people who had their voices heard were the employees who had MBAs.
So, at that moment it seemed as though the answer was to go to college.
Merchant goes on to list some of her achievements since she left that meeting. She has helped launch major products for Apple (and other companies), she has gotten her MBA, she has worked her way up to corporate boards and has gone on to author a book and speak at events such as Inspirefest and TED.
With all of those experiences behind her, Merchant began to notice what the problem was. She said: “Because I was in so many different rooms, at any given time there was only a select group who ever had a shot at their ideas being heard.
“Now, it often meant that people who are marginalised in society – maybe people who have autism, or people of colour – their ideas were marginalised too. But it wasn’t just them.”
Regardless of what meeting room Merchant was sitting in, it appeared that there was an excuse for everybody’s ideas to be invalidated or dismissed. If they were too young, they lacked experience. If they were too old, they were out of touch.
“The people who got heard were the ones with the fanciest titles (even if their ideas were last year’s re-runs), or the loudest person at the table – people see that one a lot,” Merchant said.
Power and status
“It wasn’t until I found this research from Adam Galinsky and Joe McGee at Columbia University that helped explain this. … They wrote that power and status act as self-reinforcing loops. It directly affects whether or not one’s ideas are heard,” Merchant explained.
On a fundamental level, this means that if you have power, your ideas get heard. If you don’t have power, well, your ideas don’t get heard. Or, at least, not heard in a way that makes any kind of impact.
Merchant re-enacted the way people typically respond to ideas presented to them by people in positions of power. There was a stark contrast between the enthusiasm displayed here and the disinterest she later describes witnessing when people with little or no power expressed themselves in meetings.
With all of this in mind, Merchant went on to poke holes in the idea of meritocracy.
“Here’s the reason why we all like the idea of meritocracy,” she explained. “It’s easier to believe and have the set sense of control be ours, than believe that the world is that unjust. To believe that we are somehow second-class citizens in the places that we work, hurts too much.
“And work perpetuates the idea, because it keeps you working harder. Yet, when we acknowledge that there’s no meritocracy, we can move on and acknowledge that those who are valued get to create value.”
Merchant stressed the importance of getting new ideas to the table, even if it’s hard. “Originality fuels innovation. It fuels progress. It fuels solutions. And yet, many of us are seen by the lens of ‘other’, instead of what we can only bring to the table.
“We’re seen as different, instead of distinctly ourselves. We’re seen through the subjective lens, instead of the subject of our own story. We’re seen through the lens of otherness, rather than onlyness.”
All of this ties back to how Merchant opened her talk at this year’s Inspirefest, when she explained in depth, what ‘onlyness’ means.
In her book The Power of Onlyness, Merchant reminds each reader that onlyness is “the power we each have based on that spot where only we stand”.
Every person has a unique experience and perspective of the world, as they’re the only person who can see it that way. Some people might see a lot of things the same way you see them, but nobody sees everything the exact same way that you do.
Merchant explained that from the place in which you stand, “Your history, your experience, visions, hopes – even if they are imperfect – are perfectly yours. Each of us, distinctly ourselves gets to add value. It’s not saying ‘you matter’, it’s saying ‘each of us matters’.”
Merchant believes that every single one of the 7.5bn people on the planet has something unique that only they can add to the world.
To solve the problem of whose ideas get heard, or how we contribute our unique skills, talents and ideas to the world when it seems like nobody wants to listen, she says the answer is “finding your people”. According to her, this “allows you to incubate your original idea and grow it so it can scale”.
She explained: “If the people around you keep shutting you down or ignoring your ideas altogether, don’t change who you are. Change who you’re with.
“The people around us shape us. You probably know the research. If the five people closest to you stop smoking, so will you. If they gain weight, so will you. If they lose weight, so will you. Ideas, they work the same way.”
Merchant explained that ‘onlyness’ isn’t about being alone. It’s about belonging to a group to become more of ourselves than if we had been alone. Having a few people to develop an idea with incubates the idea, and helps it grow. It gives you more perspective and experience for ideas you might come up with in future.
So how do we make our voices heard?
To conclude her talk, Merchant offered the audience a piece of advice to bring home.
Speaking of the power that other people have, she pointed out that accepting when someone else has power “denies the other part of the equation”.
She elaborated: “Power is not simply personal. It’s profoundly social and so as you stand in that spot in the world and find your purpose and what you care about, you can also seek and signal to find your people. As you find your people you end up joining together to be able to create change.
“We stop asking the person who’s not being heard to try harder. Instead, we create the social spaces that allow ideas to be heard so that people, including yourself, can contribute from that spot in the world where only you stand.”
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