Personal Power and Social Power
As promised last week, we’re coming back to the beginning for what will probably be the last “official” Individualism vs. Collectivism post. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be battling this topic for a long time to come, I’m sure, so it’ll no doubt work it’s way into the other topics, but I think I’m done focusing on it for now.
Today, we’re going to go back to our buddies from the Part 1 Post, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We’re going to re-examine their philosophies in broad strokes, and compare them with a dichotomy that Dr. Amy Cuddy sets up in her book, Presence. I’ve been reading Dr. Cuddy’s book for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been a fan ever since around 2015 or so. She is a social psychologist and expert on how posture and other body-inputs actually shape hormone levels and other neurological processes within our brains. She has a lot of science behind her claims, and she’s incredibly eloquent when it comes to presenting her research – be it in writing or on the stage.
One of the many areas of concern for Dr. Cuddy is how we can bring personal power to the powerless. Cuddy makes a distinction in her book between social power and personal power, and her aim is to help enable people to tap into their own personal power.
What’s That Got To Do With Confucianism or Taoism?
Okay, maybe it was an oval, not a circle. Anyway, the difference between what Cuddy calls “social” power and what she calls “personal” power, and the juxtaposition between the two, reminded me a lot of Confucianism and Taoism, respectively.
When it comes to power, Cuddy asserts – and I’m vastly over-generalizing her research here – that it is far more important in stressful, high-pressure, or evaluative situations to focus on making yourself feel powerful than making others see you as powerful. In other words, the impression you make on yourself is far more important in those situations than the impression you make on the others around you – including the people potentially judging or evaluating you.
Much of the research Cuddy points to in the beginning chapters of Presence centers on evaluative situations like job interviews or investment pitches to venture capitalists. In these situations, what she found, put simply, is that those people who were relaxed, confident (but not cocky), and fully present and engaged were the people who tended to succeed in their endeavors – whether it be getting the job, or the funding.
Like I said, I’m not going to get into all of Cuddy’s science here, because you really should just read the book, but I will speak to her principle regarding power.
The Eastern Connection…
As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, Lao Tzu (the Chinese philosopher credited with writing The Tao) and Confucius (the most famous Chinese philosopher – at least here in the West) have two very different ideas about how to best change the world. The split is between self-cultivation or social-cultivation. Taoism asserts that change is best made from within – that it’s up to each of us to make ourselves the best we can be – and in that way, we’ll all make the world a better place. Confucianism holds that people can’t be trusted to make themselves their best unless you direct them to do so with laws and orders.
Cuddy’s argument is similar. She says that those who strive for social power and attempt to gain it by artificial, or inauthentic means, often end up with the opposite outcome of what they intended. Instead, she suggests that people who strive to achieve personal power – through the very simple and free techniques she describes – often find that their social power naturally increases as a consequence of their increased personal power. In other words, the positive power they manifest in themselves is contagious and helps to increase the positive perception that others around have of them.
So Cuddy’s Some Kind of New Age Quack, Then?
No. She’s a world renowned social psychologist and professor at the Harvard School of Business. In terms of credentials, they don’t come much higher than Dr. Cuddy’s. What she says lines up in many ways with the philosophy of Lao Tzu, but she stops well short of any kind of spirituality. Her techniques, such as using expansive posture (in private), self-reflection and affirmation, deep breathing techniques, and others are all grounded in mountains of scientific research. They also happen align with ancient Taoist and other Asian philosophical ideas.
Where Cuddy draws a clear distinction, is on the nature of “presence” itself. Many Asian philosophies and religions view “presence,” or “mindfulness,” or “awareness,” or “nirvana” – whatever you want to call it – as a permanent state of enlightenment that can be attained through prescribed spiritual practices.
Cuddy disagrees. She says “presence” is more about being able to call on that enlightened state – your best self – you at your most powerful – at any time you need it. It’s not a permanent state that can somehow be magically attained. It’s a way to change your brain’s physiology in the moment to allow you to bring confidence, awareness, assertiveness, and power to potentially stressful situations. And by doing this, her research suggests, our percentage of positive outcomes (getting the job, winning the contract, getting the better deal in a negotiation, etc.) increases when we bring those qualities into the challenge with us.
The End Goal…
The basic principle behind Taoism an the basic principle that Dr. Cuddy is reporting with her research are very similar. Taoism is built around the idea that the world is perfect as it is, and that it is we that must change. It’s built on the idea of cultivating personal power. Dr. Cuddy’s mission is to help as many powerless individuals as possible attain personal – not social – power by learning to be their most authentic, best selves.
The next time you’re in a potentially stressful situation in which you are being evaluated, or where you’re under pressure, try to remember to slow down your breathing, try to find a private spot (an elevator or bathroom) where you can adopt an expansive body pose for a minute or so, and imagine a time in your life when you felt powerful, in control, and like your best self. Chances are, if you are able to do these things, that situation will go much better than you thought, and you’ll feel better going in.
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