Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who Attains Status (And How Do They Attain It)?

Machiavelli had his opinions about status (source)
"Of Mankind we may say in general they are fickle, and greedy of gain."  --Machiavelli (1532)

In several of the posts on this blog, we have written about the various forms and functions of social hierarchies in society. For instance, we have written about the perils of economic inequality here and here, we have written (here) about how power can corrupt people--unless they are prosocially oriented (read: nice), we have written (here) about our paradoxical need for status hierarchies despite some of their negative qualities, and finally, we have written about various aspects of obedience to authority figures (here and here). Extending our tour of social hierarchy, today I'd like to discuss who attains status, and precisely how they attain it.

As we have discussed in a previous post, having high status is good for your social life, your health, and your well-being. We also know that people pursue high status in their daily lives-- although not all people do so with the same success or the same vigor. Here I will outline some of the keys to status attainment in face-to-face groups.

[NOTE: In this post I will be referring to a certain type of status--one defined as respect or admiration in one's important face-to-face social groups. Status in these face-to-face groups (e.g., at work) is relatively situation-specific and people have the opportunity to move up and down the hierarchy at various points. This is different from socioeconomic status or social class, which moves much more slowly, and from status-based identities like race or gender-- which are even more stable identities that influence a person's status. We will likely discuss race and gender forms of status in future posts.]

Let's just assume for a minute that you and several of your co-workers are being considered for an important promotion at work. There is likely to be some kind of evaluation to determine who--of the possible candidates-- is likely to be the best fit for this promotion, and it likely will have much to do with your status reputation at work. How then, does one present themselves in the right way at work, to gain the most respect and admiration from one's co-workers? What sorts of behaviors should a person engage in?

How do you stand out? source
Appear Competent
Theoretical accounts of status are actually more straightforward than you would expect: people tend to attain high status if they can demonstrate that they have great value to other group members. Simple right? People gain respect and admiration by being valuable assets to a group. For example, my great grandfather avoided internment during World War II because he was a respected mechanic. That is, because he fixed the caterpillar machines that harvested grain for our troops, the people of Camas Prairie, Idaho protected him and his family from being relocated to a Japanese American internment camp.

In empirical work by Cameron Anderson and Gavin Kilduff (2009) of UC Berkeley and New York University respectively, MBA students who worked on math problems in face-to-face groups tended to elect people to leadership positions if those people appeared to be competent at solving math problems.

Notice that I said "appear" competent and not simply "be" competent. This is an important caveat because in  Anderson and Kilduff's (2009) work, they found that people who attained leadership positions were actually not more competent, they just appeared to be by volunteering more answers and providing information relevant to the problems.

Be Prosocial
Another way in which one can enhance one's status in a group is through being more prosocial to other group members. Helping other group members is likely to boost respect because it shows how invested one is in the outcomes of the group. More specifically, individuals who invest time and energy in a social group--through helping other group members-- tend to be more valuable to the group than are less invested individuals. To demonstrate this effect, Frank Flynn of Stanford University and his colleagues (2006) found that individuals who held high motivations to achieve status tended to give more help than they received from other group members. These findings were observed in actual corporate working groups as well as university student groups.

Keep in mind that right now it is unclear whether the above prosocial helping is strategic and specifically designed to gain status or if it is motivated by general prosocial orientations to be kind, compassionate, and good to others. Thus, a co-worker who helps you at work could be doing so because they are (1) generally helpful and compassionate, or (2) trying to climb the social ladder.  

Cultivate Connections
Important in any promotion is one's ability to connect socially with others, and make no mistake, who you know is important for attaining status. One of the reasons connections help is a simple one: If you are unconnected to groups members, you run the risk that your inherent value to the group will go unnoticed by others. For instance, research by Anderson and his colleagues finds that individuals high in extraversion-- a personality trait related to developing social connections-- tends to help individuals gain status in face-to-face groups.

In a related example, Anderson and Aiwa Shirako of UC Berkeley (2008) found that individuals that tended to be cooperative and prosocial in face-to-face working groups tended to attain high status only when they were also well-connected socially to others. Thus, prosocial tendencies of group members who were not well-connected went unnoticed and did not translate into elevated status.

Professor Cameron Anderson on Status

The above research suggests some of the effective strategies that individuals can use to gain status in face-to-face working groups. Do you use any of these strategies to gain status at work? We'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. (2009). The Pursuit of Status in Social Groups Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (5), 295-298 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01655.x

Berger, J., Cohen, B., & Zelditch, M. (1972). Status Characteristics and Social Interaction American Sociological Review, 37 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2093465

Flynn FJ, Reagans RE, Amanatullah ET, & Ames DR (2006). Helping one's way to the top: self-monitors achieve status by helping others and knowing who helps whom. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91 (6), 1123-37 PMID: 17144769


  1. It seems to me that in the business world, men are aware of the importance of perceived status. Women, on the other hand, are often socialized to cooperate, NOT to call attention to their achievements, to seek teammates rather than innovate alone.
    When a woman is called a bitch by others, it's often because she is achieving status, competence, but is not perceived as prosocial because she isn't behaving as expected by some people.

  2. These are interesting observations. I do think there are gender differences in the attainment of status, though we are yet to specifically pin down what behaviors might be "alpha female". Researchers like Larissa Tiedens and Teresa Vescio have conducted several studies that show gender differences in the perception of powerful women. Perhaps we will discuss this in another blog post!

    Keep reading!