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The ‘Rock Star’ Prof At The Center Of The Stanford GSB Storm

Stanford University Graduate School of Business

Stanford University Graduate School of Business


She traces her interest in the topic of power to the 1980s when as a twenty-something young professional, she worked in public relations and found herself at a meeting with the powerful co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner. Wenner, she relates in a video, had a mini-refrigerator at the edge of his desk. During a 9 a.m. meeting, he would open the refrigerator door and extract a bottle of vodka. Throughout their session, he would swig vodka straight out of the bottle and munch a raw onion.

“Nobody ever said anything to him about it,” observes Gruenfeld. “We didn’t react while it was happening. We didn’t talk about it afterwards. He didn’t even offer to share anything with us. It seemed perfectly appropriate for him to behave that way in a meeting with us. It would never have occurred to us to do that in a meeting to him.”

The odd incident would stay with her because, to Gruenfeld’s way of thinking, the executive’s offensive behavior reinforced his power and authority in the room. She ultimately decided to get an advanced degree in social psychology at the University of Illinois. After graduating with her PhD in 1993, she joined Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management as an assistant professor in organizational behavior. Phills, then an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management, met Gruenfeld during her Kellogg years, and they married in 1999, the same year she won tenure as an academic.


The now-estranged couple started at the Stanford B-school together in 2000, when Gruenfeld was pregnant with their first child, and the GSB had rolled out a golden welcome mat: $1 million in university and GSB loans, to build a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on a half-acre of the campus. Completed in 2005, the home is now valued by real estate website Zillow at $3.9 million. 

In the 15 years she has spent at Stanford, Gruenfeld’s career has flourished. Two years after arriving at the GSB she was named a fellow of the Stanford-linked Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, putting her in the fellowship company of 22 Nobel laureates and 44 winners of MacArthur “Genius Grants.”

She is well-liked and highly commended in her field. “Deb is an outstanding researcher and an upstanding person in our field,” says Joseph Magee, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “She has fundamentally shaped how researchers and practitioners understand what power does to people psychologically and interpersonally, and the process of influence in groups.”

Adam Galinsky, chair of the management division at Columbia Business school, is someone who also has worked with Gruenfeld and speaks highly of her. “In my many collaborations with her, I have found her to be theoretically deep, experimentally insightful, and scientifically rigorous,” says Galinsky. “She is a principled and thoughtful researcher whose ideas and studies have shed new insights into the fundamental effects of power.”

Adds Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of Stanford’s most well-known professors, “For the people who study the psychology of power, everyone would know her and she has produced some excellent doctoral students. She was hired with tenure, and we only hire truly excellent people at that level. She has a wonderful record, and Acting With Power is a wonderful class that teaches students the most important skill, which is to put on a show.”


Gruenfeld usually teaches three sections of “OB 333,” the elective Acting With Power course, every spring. The course draws on “the craft of acting and the science of psychology to help students learn to use themselves to develop the characters that can play these roles effectively,” according to its syllabus. “This class is designed specifically for students who have trouble ‘playing’ authoritative roles: those who find it difficult to act with power, status, and authority. It will also be useful for students who find it difficult to share power and authority, which involves accepting and deferring to the power and authority of others.”

Her research has an ironic twist to it, given the drama that now swirls around her. Her theory of power, published in Psychological Review with co-authors Dacher Keltner and Cameron Anderson, asserts that power is disinhibiting: by reducing concern for the social consequences of one’s actions, power strengthens the link between personal desires and the acts that satisfy them. 

The 2003 paper, says Jennifer Chatman, a professor at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, “laid much of the groundwork for a comprehensive theory of power and its connection to behaviors associated with lower inhibition and less impulse control. And, the theory was right. Countless studies by Professor Gruenfeld and many others have since empirically validated that people who feel more powerful experience more positive emotions, are less vigilant in making decisions, and are less inhibited in their behavior – hence the term, ‘drunk with power.’”

Critics of Gruenfeld’s lover essentially accuse him of using his power as dean to create a work environment “ruled by personal agendas, favoritism, and fear,” in the words of 46 current and former business school staffers and faculty who urged the university not to reappoint Saloner to a second five-year term.