It is a sobering thought in the egocentric era of the selfie that perhaps we might not be the creators of our own destiny or the masters of our own success.
We like to attribute our achievements to our autonomous personal brilliance. However, a new book torpedoes the misconception, warning instead that peer pressure and the people around us ‘shape everything we do’.
In The Power of Others, British writer Michael Bond demonstrates the ways in which we are ‘beholden to our peers’ – and how our ‘innate socialness’ has the power to propel us both to great heights and ‘unthinking cruelty’.
As a counterbalance, another thought-provoking new title, Compelling People, exposes ‘the hidden qualities that make us influential’. US communications strategists John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut – who have worked with Nobel Prize winners, CEOs, politicians and Nasa commanders – reassure us that we don’t have to be born with the kind of magnetism and charisma enjoyed by Bill Clinton or Oprah Winfrey; it’s something we can learn.
Together, the two books pose a question perhaps made even more pressing in the social media age: are we leaders or followers? How can we resist the charms and coercion of those around us? And how do we impose our will on others?
The idea that you are constantly influenced, or even manipulated, by those around you may be a scary one.
But Bond argues that we should be wary of trying to disrupt the process – because ‘although the presence of others can lead us astray, their absence can propel us to a far worse place’.
He said: ‘I think it is useful to be mindful as you go about your day of our innate tendencies to be led. But I think you’d have to have a very good reason to cut yourself off from it, because it’s mostly good. When you get to the other extreme – the effects of social isolation can be really serious. A lot of bad things are done by people not because they’re inherently evil but because they are shaped by the situations they’re in.
‘A lot of war crimes, for example, are carried out by people who you would never predict to behave that way. To give you a very extreme example, look at suicide bombers – you would think if anyone would inherently be a monster, it would be someone like that.
‘But psychological profiling on these people suggests that they are really spectacularly ordinary, they don’t stand out from their population. If anything, they’re more easily led and more easily influenced.’
In essence, take a very close look at who you spend your time with. Even on a mundane level. Bond said: ‘If you think you’re drinking, smoking or eating too much, then it’s a good idea to have a look at the friends that you’re hanging out with. Because those sorts of behaviours are very quickly replicated within friendship groups.’
What is the impact of the internet now that our virtual friendship groups are in the hundreds?
‘In some ways you’re more vulnerable to a greater number of people across the world,’ said Bond. ‘So perhaps we’re more blown by those winds of social influence.’
He added: ‘Some of the best examples are in crowds. The malice of crowds is a popular myth, but what really happens is people become extremely co-operative. And it’s remarkable when you look at what happens during crowd disasters, for example Hillsborough.
‘There were lots of reports about people trampling on each other but, actually, the interviews done with people in that crowd showed that they were remarkably altruistic and kind towards each other. If it hadn’t been for that, a lot more people would likely have been killed.’
If controlling your own behaviour seems nearly impossible after reading this thesis, perhaps you might want to concentrate instead on affecting other people’s.
Compelling People offers a manual for anyone keen to become an arch-influencer. The balancing act you must master is to convey both strength (the root of respect) and warmth (the root of affection) – the two elements that form ‘the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge’.
However, getting the two in harmony is no mean feat. Niccolò Machiavelli posed the question in the 16th century whether it is ‘better to be loved than feared or feared than loved’ and, deciding that ‘it is difficult to unite them in one person’, concluded that ‘it is much safer to be feared than loved’.
As Neffinger and Kohut explain in their book: ‘Strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character – wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary – tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth – smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favours – can leave us seeming more submissive than strong.’
So what is your best bet for being a leader rather than a follower?
‘First, the easiest thing anyone can do is to stand up straight and smile,’ Kohut told Metro. ‘Second, over-use of phrases such as “um”, “like” and “ya know” signal a combination of youth, inexperience, informality or a lack of polish.
‘The trick is allowing pauses between words and actually learning how to use those pauses. Finally, before heading into any stressful situation, whether a professional meeting or a big date, stretch your body out in a power pose – think of how you’d respond if your team just won a big match – and hold it for a minute or so. You’ll set off a hormonal reaction in your bloodstream that will make you feel more confident.’
Above all, try to balance your strength and your warmth. Neffinger and Kohut conclude: ‘We live most fully when we cultivate both in our lives, when we balance a high degree of individual capability with an unflagging regard for the needs and interests of others.
‘Only then are we worthy of genuine admiration.’
11 June 2014 | 5:00 am – Source: metro.co.uk