Hierarchy is a fundamental aspect of social life -- it often emerges spontaneously from the interaction between people. In organizations, hierarchies are both implicit and explicit. We can identify two major dimensions in social hierarchy -- power and status. The differences between the two are not as subtle as it might meet the eye.
In a paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology#, NYU Stern professor Steven Blader and Cornell University professor Ya-Ru Chen describe the conceptual differences between power and status along similar lines. They say:
“Status: prestige, respect and esteem that a party has in the eyes of others ... an index of the social worth that others ascribe to an individual or a group. Status originates externally and is rooted in the evaluations of others through status-conferral processes.”
“Power is best conceptualized as control over critical resources — that is, outcome control.”
When we have power but no status, we may still exercise authority or control over others. But when we have no power, it is status that helps us be heard. In Originals: How Non Conformists Rule the World Adam Grant says “status cannot be claimed: it has to be earned or granted.”
We earn status by proving our worth
In an experiment led by University of North Carolina professor Alison Fragale, people were punished for trying to exercise power without status. When people sought to exert influence but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, coercive, and self-serving.
Since they haven't earned our admiration, we don't feel they have the right to tell us what to do, and we push back.
When we're trying to influence others and we discover that they don't respect us, it fuels a vicious cycle of resentment. In an effort to assert our own authority, we respond by resorting to increasingly disrespectful behaviors.
The most shocking demonstration of this vicious cycle occurred when researchers asked people to work on a task in pairs, and gave one person power over what tasks the other would have to carry out to earn a shot at a $50 bonus.
When the power holders were randomly assigned to learn that their peers admired and respected them, they chose mostly reasonable assignments: for the $50 bonus, their peers would have to tell a funny joke or write about their experiences the previous day.
But when power holders learned that their peers looked down on them, they retaliated by setting up some humiliating tasks, such as telling their partners to bark like a dog, say 'I am filthy' five times, or count backward from five hundred in increments of seven. Just being told that they were not respected nearly doubled their chances of using their power in ways that degraded others.
Power to influence
To become more effective, our understanding of influence, which has two major vectors representing wide and deep, needs to become more nuanced to include a third dimension along the power-status axis. We accrue credits in our influence bank through respect, based on our contributions, and not rank.
This is why whenever we want to challenge the status quo, we should first do work that advances the current mission -- we then earn the ability to champion a different vision. “One of the most frustrating experiences people have is in situations where no one is in charge,” says Fragale. “It’s impossible to get anything done.”
But organization also have people in power who are not well-regarded. These high-power, low-status people struggle to lead and build a well-functioning team. Data from a new study Fragale is leading indicates that people are less likely to take the advice of high-power, low-status people, even when the advice is good.
This introduces an interesting line of inquiry into learning, which has become a fundamental skill in a world that is constantly changing. In a Reddit AMA, Elon Musk captures the sentiment when asked how he keeps up. He says:
it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.
To what degree does the environment in which we work and live play a role in our willingness and opportunity to learn?
What happens to learning in social hierarchies?
In a 2010 paper for Organization Science Special Issue on “New Perspectives on Organization Science,” J. Stuart Bunderson, John M. Olin School of Business Washington University in St. Louis, and Ray E. Reagans, MIT Sloan School of Management, review the the scholarly literature on the effects of social hierarchy on learning in organizations and groups. About the approach, they say:
We begin with the observation that theories of organization and group learning have tended to adopt a rational system model, a model that emphasizes goal‐directed and cooperative interactions between and among actors who may differ in knowledge and expertise but are undifferentiated with respect to power and status.
While a rational system model has proven quite useful in articulating how knowledge might be stored, manipulated, represented, and deployed in order to generate new knowledge and insight, it has not adequately accounted for the fact that learning in organizations is enacted within formal and informal hierarchies of power and status that shape perceptions, motivations, and behavior.
Social hierarchy is a pervasive reality of organizational and group life and, the authors found, complicates three key processes that play central roles in rational system models of collective learning: 1./ anchoring on shared goals, 2./ risk‐taking and experimentation, and 3./ knowledge sharing. They say:
Collective learning requires that members anchor on and adjust their behavior in relation to a shared goal or set of goals, that they take risks and remain open to failure, and that they exchange information, knowledge, and perspectives with one another.
Hierarchies complicate learning processes and can present an obstacle to collective learning.
But using only a rational approach to understanding learning, while productive, overlooks certain aspects of human behavior -- that of social hierarchies. How do the differences in power and status among organizational actors affect learning? In their review, the researchers found that:
Our review suggests that while power and status differences clearly present formidable challenges to collective learning, these challenges can be mitigated or even reversed when power is used to advance collective interests. Indeed, our review suggests that higher‐ranking actors who use their power and status in more “socialized” ways can play critical roles in stimulating collective learning behavior.
Organizations that overcome this obstacle do so through a mitigating factor -- the ‘socialized’ use of power, that is power use directed toward collective goals and interests. Learning plays a critical role in companies, as the system for running a successful business depends on making dynamic choices.
In the absence of collective goals and interests, can improving status help with the knowledge sharing necessary to understanding risk and driving a culture of experimentation?
Perception and status
To understand how people confer status on others, Fragale and her colleagues conducted two experiments#.
In the first experiment, Fragale listed occupational categories – bouncers, authors, artists, professors – and asked respondents to judge the characteristics of the people in those professions and rate how much power and status they thought each person had.
She found that the occupations rated similarly in power and status were rated similarly in terms of their dominance and warmth. These results indicated that people have well-developed schemas and mental models they use to organize their world by power and status.
In the second experiment, Fragale again used the occupations list. But this time she told respondents how much control over resources the person in the occupation had and how well-regarded each person was before respondents were asked to ascribe characteristics to the people in each occupation.
Comparing those responses with the responses in the first experiment gave Fragale confidence that she was tapping into power and status in the first experiment.
“The psychological sequence we were able to document was: I see your power and status; I make inferences about what kind of person you are; and I use those inferences to forecast how you’re going to behave in a future interaction,” says Fragale. “We’re showing the sequence matters for changing the nature of interpersonal interaction.”
As we earn status on our way to power, we may or may not find willing mentors and collaborators. With status it's a chicken-egg thing -- we need to prove ourselves to gain trust and credibility. Which means we need to learn better ways to frame issues as well as improve our timing on proposed solutions.