November 15th, 2021
Your Brain At Work LIVE – S6:E08 – Power and Expectations: The Neuroscience of Group Dynamics
When people work together as a team, there are several “group dynamics” that determine how well they’re able to synergize, make decisions, and get things done. The factors that determine whether a team has a positive (or poor) group dynamic include power, relationships, status, fairness, the ability to put the interests of the group ahead of one’s own, and more.
How does your organization go through the process of team building? How are you being proactive in creating an inclusive environment that inspires team collaboration?
In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock, Dr. Will Kalkhoff , and Dr. Joy VerPlanck will explore the science of group dynamics. We’ll examine the differences between status and power and analyze how leadership, group composition, expectations, and participation inequities that can impact decision-making and work outcomes.
[00:00:02] SW: Welcome back to season 6, episode 8 of Your Brain at Work podcast. When people work together as a team, there are several group dynamics that determine how well they’re able to synergize, make decisions and get things done. The factors that determine whether a team has a positive or poor group dynamic include power, relationships, status, fairness, the ability to put the interest of a group ahead of one’s own and more. How does your organization go through the process of team building? How are you being proactive in creating an inclusive environment that inspires team collaboration?
In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock, Dr. Will Kalkhoff, and Dr. Joy VerPlanck will explore the science of group dynamics. They’ll examine the differences between status and power and analyze how leadership, group composition, expectations, and participation inequalities can impact decision making and work outcomes.
I’m Shelby Wilburn, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly Friday webinar series. This week, our show is a conversation between Dr. David Rock, CEO and Co-Founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute; Dr. Will Kalkhoff, professor of sociology at Kent State University; and Dr. Joy VerPlanck, Senior Insight Scientist at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Enjoy.
[00:01:24] DR: Great to be with you. Will, you study one of my favorite topics that’s really kept my attention for more than a decade. And so I’m really curious personally to dig into some of your research. And, Joy, great to have you back again. And I know the work you’ve done out in the field is really relevant to this topic. What is the topic today? It’s really power and status we’re going to dig into in a big way and kind of lots of things around that. And it’s a very big topic in the last 18 months or so as the pandemic’s kind of upended a lot of normal power structures. And we’ve seen obviously huge energy in diversity, equity and inclusion, and particularly a lot of conversations about equity, which fundamentally comes back to power. And also there’s this really interesting thing happening in organizations where employees suddenly have more power in many ways and whether that will play out.
But it’s a topic that’s always been important. And I think people have been mulling over the implications of power a lot more in the last 18 months. So we thought that was a great opportunity to really dig into the science. And this session, for those of you who spend a bit of time following us, this session, we’re really going to dig into the science and get an understanding of what’s going on.
So I guess, Will, first of all, how did you get interested in this area? Give us a little of the story of kind of how you got interested in power and status.
[00:02:43] WK: I mean, I guess I could say ever since I was a kid I wanted to study status. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but I think it is true that I was drawn to what I’ve always been sort of preoccupied with and fascinated by. I’ve always been suspicious, I guess, of alleged status especially among those who so obviously want you to know about theirs. And a lot of that goes back to my upbringing. So my dad was a pretty well-known respected endocrinologist. But you’d actually never know that from talking to him. He was almost repulsed by status markers, like fancy cars and clothes. Because, for him, you had to earn his respect. You couldn’t just claim it with your stuff. But it isn’t all bad either as I learned as a kid and as most people do. When you’re working on projects with your parents, your grandparents, or just in general, with people who are more experienced, more competent than me at whatever we were doing, I always took joy in being part of the group. And I was encouraged, I think, by my role models, by my parents, grandparents, to take an active role in what we were doing. But it would have been silly, it would have been unreasonable or ignorant for me to deny what I could learn from greater experience by watching and by listening.
So in that sense, status, insofar as it confers expectations of competence, is a good thing. It’s a functional thing. It’s when we start assuming competence on the basis of things like gender or race particularly in new situations with new people and new tasks. That’s where we get into trouble. And this is what we call status generalization. And unfortunately, humans tend to do it without really knowing it all the time.
[00:04:21] DR: You’ve dived straight into some big things. But I wanted to get a little bit of the arc of your journey and then we’ll get to some of those real challenges with status. That obviously has an upside and a downside. Has adaptive value in some contexts and also maladaptive. I mean, how long have you been studying status? And tell us a little about the journey and kind of the arc of that journey.
[00:04:40] WK: Yeah. I started studying it in 1994. That was the first year I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa. And when I got there, I mean, quite a few faculty were studying status, specifically a theory called status characteristics. There’s a number of faculty there that were doing research on status. And I was kind of you know the proverbial kid in the candy shop learning about all sorts of different sociology. I was just drawn to that, again, sort of for the reasons I’ve already talked about. But this was a real burgeoning area of research in the early 90s. And it was really happening at the University of Iowa. So it was a very exciting time. I mean, a lot of research being published in our top journals on status at that time.
[00:05:26] DR: Right. I mean, what do you understand now about status that you didn’t know in 1994? Did I say that right? 1994. It’s like another lifetime. What do you know now about status and at the end of that? Not the end of the journey, but at this point?
[00:05:37] WK: Well, we know a lot about how it works. I think most of us have an intuitive understanding of what status is. And I think most of us have a sense of how much we value it. As you’ve pointed out in some of your own work, there’s a lot of individual variation in people’s drive to gain status. But we know a lot about status and how it works. We’ve especially learned a lot about how status affects things like influence, and evaluations, and invitations to contribute your ideas through expectations of competence.
And I think, for us, what’s getting really exciting is we have this slippery, vague, difficult to research concept of implicit bias. I don’t know if you dug much into that. But –
[00:06:23] DR: A lot.
[00:06:24] WK: Yeah. So I think we’ve got a new and exciting way of understanding what implicit biases and how it works in terms of unconscious social expectations that are activated by status. And we’ve come up with some very clear ways of measuring that with neurological markers. So that’s really exciting. I think we’re really starting to get a grip, implicit bias and status processing.
[00:06:47] DR: I have to ask. Let’s dig into that. Tell us about the study and kind of the findings so far. What are you learning about status and bias?
[00:06:53] WK: Yeah. I mean, this was sort of the big issue. So the theory that we’ve been working with is called status characteristics theory. And the main claim of the work is that status affects things like your influence levels, the evaluations you get. Again, the invitations to contribute your ideas through these expectations of competence. So this has just been assumed for decades that that was the mechanism. So how do you measure that? If this is something that’s largely unconscious, how do you measure it? And so that’s what really drew us to neuroscience, because I think that’s something that social neuroscience can really contribute. It’s going to help us understand these mechanisms that are at work in social processes.
So in our own work, we’ve looked at how social status operates to organize social relations and interaction among people that are engaged in group tasks. And so we’ve collected FMRI data and EEG brain data while people work on a novel task with a partner. A partner who, in this experimental paradigm, unbeknownst to real participants is actually computer simulated. And who’s manipulated on the basis of a pretest to be either higher status or lower status than the naive participant in terms of having skills that are ostensibly, but not actually related to the task at hand.
For example, in lower status conditions, the simulated partner is portrayed as having much greater ability at the task they’ll be working on. While in higher status conditions, the simulated partner is portrayed as having much lower ability.
[00:08:26] DR: Right. Let me just pause you for a second, because I think there’s a really interesting point. Do you think social economic status or socio-metric status? Because there’s a term people may not be familiar with. Because it’s an important distinction, I think.
[00:08:36] WK: It is. Yeah. And so Cameron Anderson made a lot of that distinction. There’s socioeconomic status, which is really the material dimension of status we usually associate with things like income and wealth. That’s what we mean when we talk about socioeconomic status. But really the kind of status we’re talking about is more along the lines of what Anderson refers to as socio-metric status that comes from respect, esteem, admiration and things along those lines, which seems to be more important for people’s subjective well-being.
[00:09:10] DR: And, joy, I know you’ve served in some interesting challenging places. I guess socioeconomic status doesn’t matter at all in those places, right? It’s kind of all socio-metric isn’t it? Can you comment on that a little bit, Joy?
[00:09:21] JV: Yeah. So I think what you’re referring to is probably my first job out of college, which was as a young lieutenant in the military. So you finish college and you’re handed your commission as a military officer. And then here you go, lieutenant. You’re now in charge of a couple million dollars worth of armament. And here’s your keys to the motor pool. And by the way, you’re also in charge of the lives, safety and well-being of 33 men and their families, by the way. So here you go. Here’s your power.
I mean, obviously, as a woman coming in, I was low status. I mean, I could fill this hour with stories of being a low status, high-impact actor, unfortunately. And it definitely affects women more. It definitely affects people of color more, and much more women of color. It also does impact in those industries sometimes young, white men.
A good example for those of us baby boomer or generation X and older who watched the Clint Eastwood movie, Heartbreak Ridge. If you remember the gunnery sergeant comes in. He’s got a ton of experience. And then this young white male lieutenant comes in and he says, “I haven’t been to combat or anything, but I was the cadet battalion commander of my ROTC detachment.” And let’s be clear. That is a very poor attempt at raising low status to match your power. But that kind of demonstrates what happens in a situation like that where you come in and the power it doesn’t really matter because the status is low.
[00:10:50] DR: Yeah. I know. That’s such an interesting thing. Let’s come back to you in a minute because I want to hear some more examples to kind of bring this alive. But, Will, going back to your studies. So we’re talking about socio-metric status. It’s kind of relative. And so you set up these conditions with variable status. There’s a computer people don’t know. And then what did you see? What’d you find?
[00:11:08] WK: Yeah. So we manipulate status. So as a participant, you’re either manipulated to be high status. You know what you’re doing. Or you’re manipulated to be lower status. You don’t know what you’re doing. And we have them work on a bunch of tough, ambiguous problems where they’ve been led to believe that they have ability or they don’t.
And so we looked at some areas of the brain that we expected to be involved in the process on the basis of past social neuroscience research on status, including areas I know you’ve talked about, prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the medial prefrontal cortex and some others. And we actually didn’t find much going on in those areas, which was really surprising. So that what took us to the EEG study. And this is where we started really getting this idea of expectations as implicit bias.
So we took the same experimental paradigm. Adapted it a little bit with some slight alterations. And we conducted this electroencephalography study where we looked specifically at an electrical brain response called the feedback related negativity, or FRN for short, which we felt would be kind of the smoking gun here. The FRN being a brain response that you tend to see when people encounter an unexpected stimulus of any sort. And lo and behold, we indeed found that when a simulated partner’s behavior didn’t match up with their status, that is when a lower status partner oddly stuck to their guns and when a higher status partner oddly tended to cave in when disagreements arose, you saw this huge spike in the FRN response. And this was quite pronounced. So the study provided fairly definitive evidence that status impacts participation inequalities in groups. Things like influence and performance opportunities through largely unconscious expectations of confidence. So it really helped us answer with pretty definitive brain evidence that expectations are the basic social mechanism linking status to influence in task groups. So we did have some success with that study. It was very exciting.
[00:13:09] DR: That’s really interesting. Interesting. I was thinking about this whole expectations of competence. And maybe you’ve got some stories on this from your world, I’m sure. Many of the different worlds. I know you’ve worked with the police forces as well as others. But there’s such an interesting thing that we do with bias, is that when someone seems confident, we assume they’re competent. And they’re often not correlated at all. In fact, there was a whole body of research at one point about how the incompetent get promoted. There’s a whole study done on that.
[00:13:41] WK: I think I’m living proof of that.
[00:13:44] DR: Hopefully no, Will. But, literally, they use politics, they use backdoor things, all sorts of things. And people have literally studied how incompetent people get promoted. And they basically use confidence to push their way through. So it’s really interesting.
Joy, is this something you’ve seen? Something that you run into in your career?
[00:14:01] JV: Yeah, sure. I used to sell firearms simulators to military and police, and I would walk. And, Will, it’s very nice that the research validates what’s happening in the brain. But many of us could have told you that just from one room and seeing what happens. So and the way to kind of assimilate and overcompensate for what I knew what was happening was I would set up a system to demonstrate a simulator weapons. And I could see in the back of the room that somebody was like, “What’s she going to show us about all these weapon systems?”
And then I would do something where it was like, “I’m just going to test this and make sure everything’s working before the demo started.” And I would bring up something really complex and kind of demonstrate that I know what I’m doing and I was shooting all the targets down really fast. And then I would go, “Okay, it works. We can start the demo now.” And they would go, “All right. Well, no, I’ll listen to you.” And that’s a lot of times what we have to do when we recognize that we’re low status and that we have to take control of the situation.
[00:14:55] DR: Right. We have to show that we’re competent if we might be lower status in there. No. That’s really interesting. Can you kind of dig a little bit more into what you mean by expectations theory and just tell us a little bit more about expectations and the connection between that and status?
[00:15:08] WK: Yeah. It’s a theory that’s been around for quite a long time. The progenitor, the main progenitor, the theory being Joseph Berger. This is something that started to emerge in the 50s. And the basic idea is that we have characteristics in society that are socially valued. So it’s better to be certain things than other things.
And I think one particularly sad demonstration of this was Kenneth Clark’s infamous doll tests, back around the time of Brown versus the Board of Education. So Clark was conducting research where he asked very young black children, I think in the age of three to seven. So he had them identify the race of each doll in a set of dolls. And then he had them pick the doll that they preferred. And infamously, a majority of the black children preferred the white doll and assigned all these positive characteristics to it. So in this case arising from segregation and discrimination, that’s social status. When the members of a culture tend to consensually agree even the lower status members that they’d rather be one level of a social category than another, that’s status.
And so, historically in U.S. culture, things like race, gender, age, class, these are some of the major axes of what we more popularly sort of call privilege. And without going around saying it, people act as if it’s better, more culturally valued to be male, middle-aged, white, highly educated, from the upper echelons of society in terms of class, et cetera. And we tend to believe, usually unconsciously, and act as if the members of these social categories are more intelligent. They’re generally more talented in a wide variety of things. They tend to be more blessed, if you will, in terms of things that count in this world. So it’s a it’s a status-based halo effect. And that’s what the theory is talking about. And that’s what produces influence people. Giving us positive evaluations. People making excuses for our failures. People asking us for our opinions and things. That’s what the theory is really all about in a nutshell.
[00:17:10] DR: Right. Right. So we’re really expecting those people are competent just based on some surface things. But the dark side of that is that we might be expecting lower status people who are perceived as lower status not to be competent when they are.
I go to a question from Caroline. It’s kind of the heart of this isn’t having to prove your status constantly kind of tiring. You can see the exhaustion in Joy’s face from years of dealing with that. Do you want to speak to that a little bit, Joy?
[00:17:36] JV: I do. And there was a great article that I’ve read several times, and I’ve referred to it a lot. It’s an article from about 2017 in The Atlantic called the Inconvenience of Being a Woman Veteran. And one of the significant things for that is not only is it difficult in the moment, because you can’t be authentic. You have to be kind of performatively authentic, if that’s a thing, to assimilate. And that really takes up a lot of cognitive space. Like you’re trying so hard to prove yourself that you’re really off task a little bit sometimes. And it does wear you down. But also it impacts a lot of things downstream. Because when you then have to shift, because as we know, this is contextual. We call the advantage the variable variable, right? Because as soon as you walk out the room, your position of advantage, your position of perceived expectation being up there shifts based on who you’re with, and the demographics, and the skills and experience in the room. And it becomes difficult for you to shift out of that.
And one of the things that that article really talked about, which resonated particularly with me, was when you go to a space where you no longer have to prove that you’re one of the guys, that you belong there, then you get to a place where you can be yourself and they go, “Something’s not right about you. What are you doing here?” That doesn’t fit. Where it used to fit there, it doesn’t fit here. And it is. It’s really taxing on a lot of levels.
[00:18:59] DR: Yeah. I know it’s interesting. I’ll come back to you in a second, Will. I just want to make a comment. I love the term performatively authentic. I don’t know if you just coined that, Joy, in the moment. It’s a wonderful term. It’s similar to the concept of covering from Kenji Yoshino, who we’ve had on here who’s done a huge amount of research on the cognitive load and the cognitive challenges of having to cover you know aspects. And also weathering.
And then we had a session I think just last week actually where we saw a really frightening statistic, which was that three percent of men or women, or just African-American in general. I think it was three percent of African-American employees want to be back in the office. 97% wanted to stay working at home, and the biggest reason was the covering, the weathering and all this stuff. And it really starting to seem like a similar thing they’re having to prove their status all the time, which is interesting.
Will, let’s just change gears a little bit, and we want to hear your thoughts on solutions. Tell us about status and power. Are they same? Are they different? Let’s just go into the power side of things a little bit first.
[00:20:00] WK: Christopher Kelly and his colleagues have a really interesting article on this. It came out in 2017. It’s called Power, and Status, and Leadership. The journal that it’s in escapes me at the minute. I can get that for people if they’re interested. He and his co-authors talk a lot about the difference between power and status with respect to leadership. So leadership, in general, is they discuss the essence of leadership is getting somebody to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do. And I’m sure Joy can talk all about that in an applied sense. But then there’s different ways. You can do that you can use power, which we typically think of as coercion. Control over resources, rewards, punishments. Or you can achieve that end through status, respect and admiration.
So I like to think of it in terms of like a family type of model in an ideal world. When parents ask their children to do something, the children would just do it out of respect and admiration for their parents. So the parents achieve influence through the status that they have. But of course, as we all know, it doesn’t always work. And parents sometimes have to resort to power or coercion by threatening punishments, or dangling carrots, or rewards, punishments and things of that nature. And of course, we don’t really want to use power. Power comes with the position. So power is an inherent property of positions. It’s something that comes from being a parent, a boss, an officer in the military. And, ideally, you don’t have to use your power. You can. But ideally you use your status. People would do what you say because they respect you and they admire you. And that’s the most effective way or the most desirable way, I’d say, to get to influence. But that’s really sort of the difference. Power is coercive. It’s attached to the positions. The status flows from respect and admiration.
[00:21:55] DR: Interesting. Joy?
[00:21:56] JV: But I would also say that the perceived power doesn’t always work. And I’ll give an example that applies to a cultural issue. Going back to the military days as well, I was in a school where we were working with officers from other countries, multiple foreign officers in there. And we rotated positions of leadership. So, okay, this is your week to be the platoon leader. Make sure the classrooms get cleaned. Make sure the bathrooms are clean, all these things. So divide up all the tasks.
So I was the platoon leader in charge. I divided up all the tasks. I had a Middle Eastern officer, male, who was given the task of sweeping the classroom. And he just sat there. He sat on a desk. And I kind of went, “Okay, what did they teach me in ROTC about leadership? Get in the trenches with them.” Okay. So I grab a broom, and I go over, and I’m sweeping up. And I said, “Okay, there’s a second broom. Do you want to help me with this?” And he looked at me and he went, “I don’t take orders from women.” There was no amount of power. I had power at that time, I did, but there was a cultural issue that was preventing that from being useful in any way. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen no matter what.
[00:23:03] WK: And there’s an interesting thing you raise there is the difference between potential power, or power that adheres in the position, and power use. So it sounds like in this case this person was not expecting you to use your power that appears in the position. Yeah.
[00:23:18] JV: Right. Yeah. And, really, at that point, what do you do? It doesn’t it doesn’t matter what was happening in the brain at that time. I’ll tell you what was happening in my brain at that moment. [inaudible 00:23:28].
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[00:24:32] DR: We did a bunch of research on power. And just to go on a side track for a minute, then I want to come back to like what we can do as leaders or as people developing leaders to kind of address this. We did some work on power a few years ago. And it’s come back a lot in the last year. And what we did in particular was try to understand the impact of power on an individual’s brain. In other words, if you’re in a team of people, you’re all peers, and now one of you is promoted to the manager of that team. What happens to that person’s brain?
And it’s really interesting. Even very low levels of power differential, even like, “Oh, you’re in charge of this task now.” Not even their manager. Just you’re going to oversee this task. Has very, very noticeable effects in three quite specific ways. And so now you’re talking about big changes, like someone who’s three levels up in a company, you’re going to have even bigger effects, very big effects. And they’re very interesting. And each of these effects has a very adaptive purpose for leading people, but also a dark side. And the first one was when you think about other humans, like when you now have power, when you think about other humans, you don’t actually activate the network for thinking about humans as humans, which involves thinking about where they’re coming from, where they are now, where they might be going, what their intentions are, their goals, their emotional state. It’s like all that stuff is in the people network, which is medial prefrontal connected. You don’t activate that. With a little bit of power, you activate more lateral regions, which are more conceptual. And you’re actually thinking of these people as objects for your use.
Now, that has adaptive value, because if you imagine the entire richness of, say, five people, you can’t possibly also hold in mind how you’re going to move them around and organize their tasks. So it has benefits to just basically as a leader or having power being able to use the working memory you have because you’ve kind of stripped away down to a straw person what this person is. But then of course you’re now treating people as objects. So that’s the first one, is it really changes how you refer to people.
The second one interesting is you become more positively oriented, more approach-oriented or toward-oriented. And, again, that’s helpful. You’re optimistic. So you’re willing to do scary difficult things, which is great for leadership, but you miss the way people might be feeling. And you also just step over risks. You just ignore risks. And the third one that’s interesting is your level of construal or the level at which you think lifts up. So you think much more abstractly even with a little bit of power. You think much more abstractly. In other words, you don’t kind of pay much attention to the details. You pay attention more to the kind of chunks of details.
And we’ve written about this as a couple of pieces. One in Fast Company. We published one also in Quartz. I think they’re kind of really helpful summary. But as you sort of think about what power does to an individual’s brain and then you add into this, this kind of expectations theory, you start to get this kind of sense of some of the mess that we’re dealing with and why it’s such a struggle for people in lower power to feel treated fairly and feel heard and sort of this.
So I guess as a backdrop, Will, in your long career studying this issue, what are some of the things that we can do differently perhaps in an organizational context? What can we do differently to address these expectations issue around status? What’s your reflections?
[00:27:40] WK: Yeah. There’s a lot of things you could do. I mean, Joy, already talked about one of them. I mean, there’s no better way to gain status in a group than through demonstrated competence, especially if your reaction to your own success is one that comes across as group-oriented. Sort of acknowledging the role of the team in your own success. So there’s a joy to prove herself when she’s going out and selling these firearms simulators has to stand up in front of the room and demonstrate competence. So you do a good job. And you’ve immediately elevated your expectations in the room. That’s one very effective way of doing it.
Another, something we could do as leaders if we happen to find ourselves as high status leaders is invite disagreement. I don’t know if you remember the television show House. But here is the greatest medical mind in the United States, if not the world. And he did not want to be surrounded with sycophants. He didn’t want to be surrounded with obsequious people. He wanted disagreement. So he turned it into a game. He turned it into a competition. It’s like I don’t want you to just sit there and agree with everything I say. I want to hear what you have to say. So as a leader, you can invite disagreement. And that can help lower status people feel comfortable contributing their ideas.
[00:28:59] JV: I think that’s a good example of having power and choosing not to use it, which is a really good strategy. When you’ve got the power and you demonstrate that there’s a group motivation and you gift that power away and acknowledge that you don’t need it, that’s a really strong motivator to the group. It is a wicked self-preservation strategy too. Like I have the power and I’m giving it to you. It preserves somebody else’s autonomy. It elevates the other person’s status in the room while elevating your own. Like I’m giving it to you because I trust you, because let’s come together as a team and share this experience towards a common goal.
[00:29:36] DR: Yeah. You reminded me of something. When I was studying Cameron Anderson’s work, and I love his research. It’s been really kind of helpful in my thinking, this concept of a status ladder that you can be one rung up. You can have several rungs up. And one of the interesting things also about status is when you meet someone kind of quite a few rungs up. If you’re the lowest status person and they’re quite a few rungs up, you get quite a strong threat response.
I mean, being lower status, in the lower status person, generally activates a slight away response. And it even affects IQ. There was a study done with messing with people’s perception of status. This was some years ago now. But they basically said, “Hey, some people who are kind of smarter than you are also doing the same IQ study.” And people literally did worse because they felt a status threat on IQ.
So feeling lower status like a little bit, like one rung, has a slight threat response in it. But you get a reward response for the higher status. What happens when you have like several runs? So I ran into Jon Stewart, one of my heroes in the media. He ran The Daily Show forever. I ran into him at a party and I just had no words to say. I just didn’t know what to speak, because he was like infinite rungs of status above me.
There’s a apocryphal story from the Queen of England who meets people all the time. None of them can say anything whatsoever to her. So she always asks them this incredibly simple question, like, “Have you come far?” So that people actually can have words, because their brain is exploding with the status differential.
Now when you take that to leadership, a senior leader who actually wants people to contribute has to see that people one down, two down, three down, it might be 15 layers. Like people just aren’t going to say anything to them because their brain is exploding. And one of the clever things that those leaders do is they bring their own status down. They talk about the dumb things they did on the way to work today. They talk about the mistakes that they’re making. They actually try to drop their own status to help others kind of raise theirs. And as I see this, I think it’s a really helpful strategy.
Will, do you want to add something there?
[00:31:33] WK: No. I think that’s totally fascinating. I mean, what you’re talking about, this just shows how important status generally is to people. So having low status, lighting up the amygdala in the brain, the fight or flight center. So we perceive low status literally as a dangerous threatening situation. I think as you’ve pointed out in your own work, you also see blunted activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of conscious processing, which might help explain why in the presence of fame we’re at a loss for words.
This makes sense, because as we’ve found in our own work, feeding people enough negative self-relevant feedback leads to suppression. So in other words, people cope with negative self-relevant information such as finding out that others don’t think very highly of them by actually trying not to consciously think about it. So there’s a reason we tell each other, “Forget about it,” when this sort of thing happens. So I can see when that status difference is huge and you’re finding that situation threatening on a visceral level. I can see in that blunting in the prefrontal cortex people’s conscious processing shutting down. That’s just fascinating. So it’s neat that you can relate that from your experience.
[00:32:48] JV: David, you talked about this being self-depreciation. So lowering your own status to meet the others is one approach. But you can also elevate the other person, right? And one – I’ve got to call out a former a boss of mine who did this really well, of like starting group interactions by elevating my status. So like, “Here’s Joy. She’s got a doctorate in this. And she’s former military police.”
But here’s where I want to caution people. So these socio-economic status markers of education, and experience, and expertise, they’re not as useful. So when you’re taking this allyship moment to elevate somebody’s status on their behalf, super useful. Make a point to do it with socio-metric markers. So like, “This is Joy. I value her opinion. She’s here because I trust her. She’s here because she’s got like really strong ideas.” That’s where you can be useful to people with low status in the room.
[00:33:47] DR: Yeah. Interesting. You mentioned a important word, Joy, allyship. It’s a really important tool for people in higher status to apply to others. But you want to do it in really meaningful ways. You’ve got me thinking men, generally, in a situation will tend to exude more confidence than maybe they’re competent. Generally, on average, and averages lie, but generally, women will often appear less confident than they are actually competent. Particularly, when this has been studied in job interviews, women will tend to downplay their experiences and applicability, and men will kind of play up theirs. And so if you’re a male leader, you’re going to want to call out the competence of your female colleagues, because your male colleagues are constantly self-advocating and females aren’t. So you’re going to have this differential. And I think it’s an important one.
Will, have you been working with allyship at all? Is it a concept you’ve been digging into and studying?
[00:34:42] WK: Joy and I were actually talking about that. Within the status characteristics theory line of research, we’ve looked at a lot of different kinds of interventions. But allyship isn’t one we’ve looked at. So we’ve actually talked about some research opportunities that we perhaps like to pursue together. But, yeah, we haven’t really looked at allyship within the same structure.
[00:35:04] DR: Yeah, we’d love to.
[00:35:04] WK: Yeah, that sounds great.
[00:35:06] DR: I bet I could get 410 people to agree and say, “Go and do it. We’d love to study allyship with you.” I mean, it’s such an interesting domain. We started researching it about two years ago. Microsoft asked us to build a whole strategy for them around allyship that’s scaled just about everyone there now. We partnered with Kenji Yoshino on that. And then we ended up doing a whole lot of research on the critical habits underneath allyship. And it’s really opened my eyes. It’s been really surprising how much I didn’t know. And in particular, when we started doing pilots and kind of rolling this out, what blew me away was how quickly people actually took to being an ally. It was something like 90% to 95% of people immediately went and did things every week once we taught them some basic skills. And I think higher status people perhaps – Because these were leaders that we taught. Higher status people perhaps want to know how to help others, not all of them. But it’s hard to know what to do and how to do it so it’s not incredibly awkward as well. How do you have that clumsy conversation? We’d love to design some studies to kind of see what happens when a high-powered person is an ally for a lower power person. Joy, you got some ideas?
[00:36:14] JV: Well, it’s funny. Will and I’ve talked about this for months and months in just casual conversations. And one of the things he mentioned is that, and I’m sorry to speak on your behalf, Will. Correct me if I’m wrong. But your experience and your research in this has made you uber aware of the low status people in the room. And it makes you actually drawn to them because you’re like, “I see you. I recognize your struggle. And I’m going to reach out to you.” And I think that’s such a critical first step is just being aware of that. And a lot of times it can be signaled by a person’s self-esteem. We know that there is research out there that says that socio-metric status is more significant in self-esteem than socioeconomic status. So I can feel great about myself for lots of things. But unless I think that you respect me, I’m not going to feel as great about things as I can. So just you finding those people who look like they need to be seen is a big first step. Remember, you enter a group dynamic.
[00:37:12] WK: Yeah. I’m so interested in this idea of allyship. And Joy and I were talking about this, because there’s kind of a delicate dance here. Sow so depending on my position in the group’s hierarchy, if i’m a lower status person trying to be an ally, I’ve got to do that very carefully, because there’s a really interesting line of research by Cecilia Ridgeway that was done back in the 80s, and I think stretching a little bit into the 90s, on the importance of motivation in groups.
So if you’re an ally in a group and you’re saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Let’s listen to so and so.” That could be a threatening thing. So that the way we present ourselves as an ally would have to come across as group motivated. So it could be perceived that you sort of interrupting the conversation and essentially taking over a leadership role because the real leader of the group isn’t saying anything. That could be perceived as you vying to increase your own status.
We’ve been talking about how to address that and how to get around that particular issue, and how you can be an ally and at the same time seem group motivated and not motivated to increase your own standing or position in the group.
[00:38:26] JV: There’s a situation that I can recall where there was a group and a task. And I challenged somebody on something. And as soon as I asserted myself, the response from that person, that man was, “Okay, mom.”
[00:38:42] WK: Wow!
[00:38:44] JV: Well, I’m glad it didn’t just wow me and that it impacted – It just lit up your [inaudible 00:38:50]. But, yeah. No. So it is. It’s a double bind of like I want to assert myself. But if I assert myself too much, I’m going to get called a name or like I’ve just mom’d you.
[00:39:02] DR: There’s research on that, that people who are slightly lower status who try to step up do get punished by the group quite often. And that’s, I guess, what you’re saying as well, Will. It’s an interesting challenge. The interesting thing I think with allyship, and there are so many things that we could study. I think the interesting thing with allyship is kind of what happens in the brain of the person being an ally is one question? Like is it intrinsically rewarding or does it activate threat networks? If you extend an opportunity to someone, that you’re losing. Because one of the things with allyship is, to be a true ally, you’ve actually got to pass on some opportunities that might be good for your status and let someone else actually benefit from that, because you’ve had a billion opportunities, right?
And so in that instance where you’re kind of letting go of a status opportunity and actually giving it to someone else, is that activating reward or threat networks in the brain? That would be a fascinating question. And then for the person receiving, what are the different conditions where when you’re receiving a benefit from someone, who if you’re on the recipient end of allyship, is that again rewarding or threatening? And what does it do? I think there’s some interesting directions in there.
The other thing with allyship is we did some research on this. We shifted from talking about privilege to talking about advantage. And obviously they’re very similar things, but they actually have a different quality when you kind of shift from one to the other. When you’re talking about privilege, it’s much more innate. Can’t do much about it. Kind of have it or not. We talk about advantage. Actually, you can have lots of different kinds of advantages. And a lot more people can help a lot more people. It doesn’t mean you’re letting people at the top off the hook. It means actually everyone could be an ally at just about every level, including a first-time manager, because they have advantages. They may not have much privilege. I think when you frame this stuff as advantages, now folks with slightly higher status, because they’ve been in the business two years, right? Even though they might be lower socioeconomic status, they might have slightly high status. Now these people can be empowered to help the next level down.
And I think one of the things that’s been exciting about allyship is that you can kind of get things activated in every meeting room every day. Whereas a lot of the other DEI things are a little bit less frequent, whereas we saw people being allies just about every day in little ways that they weren’t before. So anyway, that was exciting to us. But yeah, let’s continue the conversation offline about studies we can do. It’d be really interesting. What’s coming up for you, Will?
[00:41:22] WK: Sure. Well, right now we’re in the middle – I mean, obviously our research was interrupted by Covid, which is the case for a lot of people. But one of the things that we’re doing now is we’re starting to look at what happens to status processes in threatening environments, because we know a ton about how status works in committees, in organizations, in the workplace. But we don’t know much about how status works in very high stress, high-threatening military context, chaotic emergency rooms. Does status help? Does it hinder? And we don’t have all the results in yet. We’re not even done collecting all the data for the study. We certainly haven’t even begun to dig into the brain data yet. But what we’re starting to see is that status does lose some of its functional qualities in high-threat environments.
I mean, Joy can probably speak to this too. And this is likely part of the reason why sort of military special teams, if they’re going to go into a high-threat environment, if they’re going to carry out an extremely stressful, fast-paced, high-threat operation, it’s all about repetition in the training. We train for it. We train again. We do it over, and over, and over, and over. And ideally the mission will be carried out just like it was rehearsed. And part of the reason for that, at least in terms of what we’re finding in our research funded by the army, is that status does lose some of its functional qualities. It becomes a lot more about acting, in performing rehearsed actions, than thinking about what’s going on in the situation. Because that’s so difficult to do in these high-threat environments.
So the research we’re focusing on now in summary is really about what happens to status in these high-threat environments.
[00:43:10] DR: Yeah, and it’s really interesting, is when you’re the recipient of allyship, is it insulting? Is it a threat response? Or is it a reward response? And I guess it’ll depend kind of how it’s done and all of these things. But it definitely can feel kind of insulting there as well. Will, is there anything you want to share in terms of how this work has affected you personally and kind of in terms of how you see the world? How you move through the world? Joy mentioned going to the lowest status person at a party. What else? How is this work kind of changed as a human?
[00:43:40] WK: Yeah. Joy and I have talked about this. We’ve been at a couple of meetings. Or I was actually at a meeting that she wasn’t at. And I noticed that the lowest status person in the room, nobody was asking this person for their opinion. That’s stuff really bothers me. I have a lot of my dad in me. You’ve got to earn my trust. You’ve got to earn status. And it really upsets me when people just sort of walk into a room, I’m the highest status person here and everybody’s going to listen to me and everybody else is just kind of sitting there and doesn’t have an idea how to contribute.
So for me personally, it’s really affected me by making me very upset when low status people are ignored. And it also makes me very frustrated when high status people, for lack of a better term, don’t shut up.
[00:44:31] DR: Right. Right.
[00:44:32] WK: Sorry. Sorry.
[00:44:34] DR: No. You’re right. There’s a really, really funny website. It’s literally like a dynamic kind of very simple web page that you just click to work out if a dude is talking too much. The website is called Are Men Talking Too Much? And you just literally press a timer when a dude is talking and not talking. And it’s really, really very funny. But, Joy, a couple of closing words of sort of your journey and what you’ve been thinking and learning from this process?
[00:44:58] JV: Well, I very much appreciate the opportunity for this discussion. I do. I think it’s important and I appreciate being part of it and to make use of these stories. And I would just add that, Will, I acknowledge that it’s frustrating and it’s difficult. And when you recognize it, that’s obviously the first step. And then productive allyship, that’s it, because both of you have mentioned the allyship can go really poorly and be counterproductive if it’s not done skillfully. So take the first step and notice. And then be skillful in your allyship. And let’s get it done.
[00:45:31] DR: I think that’s the biggest takeaway so far for me. I’m sure there’ll be more this afternoon as I reflect. But skillful ally ship, that actually truly helps that other person. And let’s do some research, together, Will, on what that looks like. What does it take to do skillful allyship? And really help those other people.
One of the questions I’ve been teaching lots and lots of leaders in the last year, given we’re on platforms a lot like Zoom and etc., speaking of low status people, is in every single meeting, actually requiring every single person to speak up, but doing it in a way that’s not aggressive. And basically the question is – Well, the statement is, if you’re here, it’s because I invited you because I value your opinion. So that kind of brings those lower status people out. And now you’re being much more inclusive. Obviously, there’s a big tie to inclusion here.
Will, a huge thank you for the work that you’re doing, the collaboration over the last few months, and a lot of the brain research that you’re doing. And, Joy, a huge thank you for finding Will and the collaboration that you’ve done, and for your fantastic stories. I think I speak for everyone where we could listen to your stories for hours. Maybe we’ll do that in coming weeks. But thanks for being here and everything that you’re doing. Any closing comments for we wrap up, Will?
[00:46:39] WK: Well, I hope this is the start of a beautiful and productive research relationship. So this was a lot of fun. I’d like to see where it goes.
[00:46:46] DR: Absolutely. We have a lot of fun here. Joy, anything to close?
[00:46:49] JV: I’m a Will Kalkhoff super fan. So just being on this webinar with him has been a treat.
[00:46:54] DR: Well, you made it happen. So thanks for everything that you do as well, Joy.
[00:46:57] WK: And I’m a super fan of yours too, as you know.
[00:47:04] SW: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us make organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you listen to your podcast. Our producers are Matt Holidack, Daniel Kirschenblatt, Shadé Olasimbo, and me, Shelby Wilburn. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Catch Wear. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you here next week.