Status: It’s Not What You Think

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Authored by

NLI Staff
Leadership naturally confers high social status — which can make workplace interactions threatening. A guide for leaders on how to manage status at work.

When we hear the word “status,” we often think of status seekers — the name-droppers, social climbers, and show-offs who live to flaunt their wealth. The ones who care more about your degree than they do about your name. The people who make sure you know about their Jaguar, their yacht, and the size of their investment portfolio — and judge you by the size of yours.

But as it turns out, status is a universal human drive — one that’s crucial and ever-present not just to narcissists but to all of us. From the playground to the workplace, human beings organize themselves into groups. Within those groups, we want to be recognized and feel valued.

Status is your rank relative to other people — your position within the group and the social prestige you have in the eyes of others. It’s also about how you see your value and worth within the group. Competition, dominance, even the very concept of leadership — none of these concepts make sense without the premise that some people rank higher than others.

Differences in status permeate every walk of life, from the government (which ranks elected officials in order of succession) to the military (where rank determines everything) to the workplace, where companies use organizational charts that explicitly specify the hierarchy of employees. Even chickens have a “pecking order” — and know their place in it.


Status and the brain

Status differences are on our minds at all times — one of the first things we notice when someone walks into the room and an indicator we monitor in ourselves at all times. Neuroimaging studies have found that human beings have a network of brain regions involved in inferring and tracking status information, a process known as status perception.

Studies show we remember high-status people more than lower-status ones and that interacting with high-status people activates brain regions involved in processing our feelings of reward. Attention to social status is literally hardwired into the brain.

Status differences also permeate our language. In medieval times, we imagined that monarchs and nobles were close to the angels and God — which is why we still call the king “Your Majesty.”

Today, we still use the metaphor of height to conceptualize where employees fall in the hierarchy, speaking of “high-ranking executives” and “subordinates,” “climbing the corporate ladder” and hitting the “glass ceiling.” The high-low metaphor even extends to physical height. Tall people literally have higher status, and CEOs are disproportionately tall.

What’s perhaps most interesting is how accurate we are at judging where we fall in the hierarchy. Unlike attractiveness, intelligence, and driving ability — on which we tend to wildly overestimate our ability — we’re actually good judges of our standing within a group. Status is so important, it seems, that we’re wired to get it right.


Superstars and ‘superchickens’

There’s also a downside to status that can make it difficult to assemble a “dream team” composed entirely of superstar employees.

Unfortunately, putting too many high-status individuals together leads the team to be less innovative and less creative. In a study using chickens as a model, a biologist sought to increase “productivity” by identifying the hens who laid the most eggs — “superchickens” — and housing them together. But instead of urging each other to greater heights of egg production, all but three pecked each other to death, a competition for status outweighing productivity.

The same goes for people. Teams composed entirely of “A players” tend to underperform because the dynamic becomes too competitive. By spreading superstars across teams and putting them in critical functions promotes collaboration, not individual excellence, and results in greater productivity.

A second downside of status is the way it affects interactions between leaders and employees. High status feels good: An increase in status or reputation, studies show, triggers the release of dopamine equivalent to receiving a financial windfall. But when you perceive that your status has been lowered, it triggers a stress response that actually diminishes cognitive capacity.

As a leader, your status confers power — and as Spider-Man says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If you’re not careful, you run the risk of putting your employees in a “threat state,” a fight-or-flight mode that interferes with the ability to think clearly and get their work done. Instead of spending their time thinking about being creative and productive, they think about how not to get in trouble. If they feel like their job is on the line or they’re not being recognized for their contributions, they’ll focus on proving themselves, rather than improving themselves by learning new skills and taking on new challenges.

It’s easy to forget the inherent power you have just by virtue of being a manager. You may well feel like a regular person, but you can be sure your direct reports don’t feel the same way.

The brain is exquisitely sensitive to threats to social status, and we have a tendency to interpret neutral information negatively. That tendency is amplified when that information comes from someone whose status is higher than yours. As NLI co-founder David Rock puts it, hearing your boss say, “I have some feedback for you,” is the equivalent of hearing footsteps behind you in a dark alley.

Even an innocuous question like “Where were you?” — perhaps intended innocently and with no suspicion or malice behind it — can take on an air of menace simply by virtue of your position. The high status you wield as a manager can also have a chilling effect on an employee’s sense that they’re free to speak their mind. Sharing your own point of view can make others hesitate to speak or feel afraid to share one that differs from yours.

That’s why leaders must take active steps to create a culture of psychological safety — where people feel safe to speak up and share their thoughts and have a choice as to how to use their high status.

  • Give status rewards. Praise people publicly and give credit for a job well done.
  • Value dissent. To avoid stifling ideas by virtue of your own status, remind employees that you value their contributions and want to hear their thoughts — even if they disagree with you.
  • “Leaders speak last.” To reduce status threat and encourage people to express themselves, ask employees to share their ideas before you weigh in with your own.

Remember, having high status doesn’t mean you can do what you want and get away with it. Leading with empathy means caring about the people on your team.

As a leader, you occupy a position of privilege. To prove worthy of it, you need to use your status for the good of the people you’re leading.

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