Focus on Status, Not Power

While Power Can Lead to Compliance, Status Fosters Trust

What’s the difference between status and power? A person has power when he or she has more control over valued resources. Status, on the other hand, is the extent to which someone is held in high esteem and is respected (Magee & Galinsky, 2008).

These two clearly go hand-in-hand, but they are qualitatively different. We can all imagine a cold and distant leader who leverages his or her competence, position, and expertise to make decisions. We can also imagine a colleague who exudes warmth, enables trust, and who sacrifices his or her own interests for the betterment of the group. This doesn’t mean that all of these qualities are mutually exclusive, but only that they are different means of influencing people. Influencing people sounds pretty good, right? But the way you influence has much bigger implications than simply whether you can influence. Here’s why:

Power alone can get people to comply to your requests, but can also isolate you from the real ideas and thoughts of the people who make up the organization. This is because differences in power increases perceived social distance. In other words, the more power you have, the less likely you are to compare yourself to others, feel associated with them, and be influenced by them (Lammers, Galinsky, Gordijn & Otten, 2012). This social distancing is worrying in that it makes more powerful people less able to accurately empathize with people with lower power. This means that, typically, high-power people tend to have less awareness of how other people are thinking and misperceive other’s intentions (Galinsky, Magee, Inesi & Gruenfeld, 2006).

This negatively impacts high-power individuals in that they unintentionally weaken the ties that help to afford them such power. It also makes lower-power people less likely to speak up and share ideas, as their insights are rarely valued as highly as they deserve (Tost, Gino, & Larrick, 2013). Cue the loss of essential insights for organizational improvement and innovation.

Status functions differently than power in that it depends more on how other people perceive you. People who have higher status tend to be oriented outward towards other people, constantly seeking new perspectives and insights (Blader & Chen, 2012). High-status people are more concerned with being worthy of respect and esteem, so they are continually working to maintain their status (Magee & Galinsky, 2008). When people’s actions are understood to be fair, just, or contributing to the group’s goals, they are conferred higher status by others in the organization (Blader & Chen, 2012).

Higher-status people tend to draw attention more than lower status people. They also are better remembered (Foulsham, Cheng, Tracy & Henrich, Kingstone, 2010). This has serious implications for how information moves through an organization because status builds trust, a key to increasing information sharing, fluidity, and cooperation in organizations (Cuddy, Kohut, & Neffinger, 2013). But status doesn’t only benefit the organization; it can also benefit the individual. Status is predictive of power. In other words, the more you are respected and esteemed, the more likely you will find yourself in a position where you make decisions about resources.

So, knowing this, what should you do?

Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger (2013) argue that leading with warmth and then demonstrating competence is a powerful way to garner true engagement and support from your colleagues. While we tend to assume that we need to demonstrate our strength and abilities to influence people, building trusting and warm relationships contributes much more to how others perceive us. People seek affiliation and trusting bonds. Research has demonstrated that being ostracized results in psychological pain experienced just as strongly as physical pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004). By treating people with warmth and respect, you are fulfilling a significant human need that speaks more profoundly than simply demonstrating your ability.

A key to developing warmth is by behaving authentically, or not trying to fake reactions or emotions (Mo & Shi, 2015). People can very easily see when you are behaving disingenuously and will lose respect as soon as you do. Instead, focus on truly listening to other’s perspectives, validating what they are saying, and sharing some personal details about yourself to express your openness (Cuddy et. al, 2013).

Another way to build relationships and status is in how you talk about other people. Research has found that when you only talk about others in terms of their competence you are perceived to have high power, but people also automatically assume that you are cold and calculating. Yet, if you speak about others in terms of their competence and warmth, people afford you higher status because this signals that you are concerned with their interests and not just what they can offer you (Ames, Bianchi & Magee, 2010). So, think about other qualities that you admire or respect in others and be sure to bring it up. They’ll feel recognized and respected and may even be more likely to appreciate your great qualities.

So, even if you are not in a powerful position in your organization, it doesn’t mean you cannot have influence. And if you are already in an established and powerful position, gaining status in your organization can benefit not only you, but also the cooperation in your organization. The path to influence isn’t strength or position, but your demonstrations of dignity and respect toward others over time.


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