would you choose to be powerful or warm? ( + the secret of compelling people)
I posed the question to my Facebook peeps: would you rather be known for your power or your warmth?
It was inspired by the book COMPELLING PEOPLE by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut.
They explain that when we first meet someone, we instinctively and intuitively decide whether they can help us or if they might hurt us. We pick up on subtle cues, hints and signals about whether someone is strong (ie: can make stuff happen, has power and impact) or warm (shares our feelings, interests and worldview).
Usually there’s a trade-off between the two. The more powerful we perceive a person to be, the less warm; the more warm we perceive a person to be, the less powerful.
There’s a biological basis for this. The key chemical agent of strength, of dominance and risk-taking, is testosterone. Testosterone acts to inhibit oxytocin, which expresses warmth and empathy. So the more you have of the one, the less you’re likely to have of the other. They are battling each other in your blood.
The ability to exude both strength and warmth – according to the authors – is so rare that the Greeks referred to it as “the divine gift”, also known as charisma. (We might call it “leadership potential”, “cool”, “the X factor”, or the magical “it”.)
We expect men to be strong and powerful.
We expect women to be warm and caring.
And we don’t like to have those expectations violated. We’ll even penalize the people who do it (a kind of anti-stereotype backlash). We’ll accuse a caring, empathic man of being a wuss, being pussywhipped. We’ll accuse a powerful woman of being a cold bitch, a ballbreaker, an unnatural freak (Hillary Clinton, anyone?).
Could this be why we women have such a complicated relationship with power and ambition?
I thought of this when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appeared in VOGUE magazine. She is glammed up and sprawled upside down on a lounge chair. It’s a rather powerless position for such a powerful woman, and this would seem to be the point.
By “playing into stereotype”, as one female commenter on CNN’s Facebook page accused her of doing, Marissa is dialing up her likeability.
(Likeability is important to getting ahead. If people don’t like you, they won’t do business with you, mentor or support or promote you. Women are well aware of this, which is a major reason why they won’t ask or negotiate for raises the same way men do. On some level they fear that their likeability will take a hit, and the damage to their career will outweigh any immediate financial benefit.)
This might also be why Marissa made it a point to distance herself from feminism, even though the woman practically embodies what feminism stands for (equality, equality, equality!).
But according to Neffinger and Kohut, dimming your power is not the answer. What you should do, instead, is to turn up your warmth. One way is to use your power on behalf of a group. As Sheryl Sandberg – another formidable female — points out in her book LEAN IN, the culture will “allow” women to be ambitious and powerful so long as they are fighting on behalf of other people and not just themselves.
But maybe that’s the way it should be – for men as well as women.
One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King. In COMPELLING PEOPLE, he is held up (along with Oprah) as an example of someone with “the divine gift” of charisma, who embodies both warmth and strength:
“One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites…What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
The world doesn’t just need love. It needs warriors for love. click to tweet
When I posed the question on my Facebook page, most of the women said they’d rather be known for their warmth. This didn’t surprise me. One woman considered the question to be “Machiavellian” (Machiavelli is famous for stating that you can be loved or feared, but not both).
The few women who chose power tended to speak from a place of disillusionment: “warmth only gets you so far,” said one.
Another woman said that her warmth had allowed people to take advantage of her.
When you’ve been on the receiving end of an abuse of power – as an individual or as part of a group – you’re more likely to have a distaste for it. “Personal power drives some mighty bad behavior in human beings,” pointed out a woman who chose warmth. Who could argue with this? After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
How can we, as women and the friends of women, change the world and elevate the global sisterhood, if we don’t have the power to do so?
What if we could redefine power?
What if we rejected power over other people — the kind of power that controls and dominates, that suppresses and oppresses — and embraced the power to create, collaborate, inspire, make change?
What if more women realized that by stepping into their personal power, they were also empowering other women through both their example and their ability to represent?
What if, instead of downplaying our power, we up-played our warmth? Our love?
“My warmth is my power,” declared both Danielle LaPorte and Rafael O. Quezada.
They make an excellent point.
It’s interesting to note that the earlier incarnations of the goddess Aphrodite were the goddesses Astarte and Ishtar, evolving as one civilization conquered another and reshaped that culture’s mythology. It’s interesting to note that these were the goddesses of love, fertility…and war. The feminine was regarded as receptive and loving, yes, but it was also formidable and fierce. It destroyed as well as created. It destroyed in order to create.
The world needs people who can fight for love, who are lover-warriors and total badasses, who recognize love as the ultimate power – because it alone has the power to heal.
We could all probably use some of that.