If you want to maintain relationships with busy, powerful people, you have to pay special attention to the role of status. Status refers to a person’s power, prestige, and rank within a given social setting at a given moment in time. There is no one pecking order in life; status is relative and dynamic.
David Geffen is high status in the entertainment world, for example, but perhaps comparatively less so if Steven Spielberg is in the room. Likewise, Brad Pitt is high-status, but put him in a room full of software engineers when the project at hand involves coding, and his status is irrelevant. The President of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful man in the world, yet there are things Bill Gates can do that the president cannot, and still other things that Oprah Winfrey can do that Gates cannot. A person’s status depends on the circumstances and on who’s around.
You won’t read about status in most business and career books. It is a topic often dodged in favor of bromides like “Treat people with respect” or “Be considerate of the other person’s time.” Good advice, but not the whole story. The business world is rife with power jostling, gamesmanship, and status signaling, like it or not. It’s especially important to understand these dynamics when you work with people more powerful than you.
Before Robert Greene became a bestselling author, he worked for an agency in Hollywood that sold human-interest stories to magazines, film producers, and publishers. His job was to find the stories. A competitive person, Greene wanted to be the best, and sure enough, as he recalls, he was finding more stories that got turned into magazine articles, books, and movies than anyone else in his office.
One day, Greene’s supervisor took him aside and told him that she wasn’t very happy with him. She was not specific, but she made it clear that something just wasn’t working. Greene was befuddled. He was producing lots of stories that were being sold—wasn’t that the point?
There was something else. He wondered if he was not communicating well. Perhaps it was just an interpersonal issue. So he focused more on engaging her, communicating, and being likeable. He met with his boss to go over his process and his thinking. But nothing changed—except for his ongoing success at finding really good stories to sell.
Later, during a staff meeting, the tensions boiled over, and the supervisor interrupted the meeting and told Greene he had an attitude problem. No more detail, just that he wasn’t being a good listener and had a bad attitude.
A few weeks later, after being tortured by the vague criticisms despite his solid work performance, Greene quit. A job that should have been a stellar professional success had turned into a nightmare. Over the course of the next several weeks, he reflected on what had gone wrong with his boss.
He had assumed that what mattered was doing a great job and showing everyone how talented he was. While doing a great job was certainly necessary, he concluded it was not enough. What he failed to recognize was how his personal talents might make his boss look diminished in the eyes of others. He failed to navigate the status dynamics around him; failed to account for the insecurities, status anxieties, and egos of everyone else. He failed to build relationships with the people above him and below him on the totem pole. And ultimately, he paid the price with his job.
Everyone Is Equal, and Yet Everyone Is Not Equal
All men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights guaranteed regardless of gender, race, or religion. If a man commits a crime, he may lose his liberty but not his basic human rights such as food and humane living conditions (at least in enlightened societies, anyway). No one is more human than the next person. If you breathe, you deserve basic dignity. Period.
But in other ways, people are not equal. We do not live in an egalitarian society. People make different choices. Good luck falls on some more than others. Compare two men who work in finance, wear a suit and tie every day, and live in New York City. On the surface they may seem to be equal in status, but in reality one person will always be (and be perceived as) relatively more accomplished, powerful, rich, intelligent, busy, or famous than the other.
Status differences—both real and perceived—bear on how you are expected to act in different social situations. The following scenarios show how inappropriate power moves can offend someone of equal or higher status, and how to avoid making them.
Example #1: You email the vice president in charge of hiring at a company you want to work for. You send your résumé and propose to meet at a coffee shop near your house.
Analysis: A meeting should usually be made more convenient for the higher status person. That means at the time and location best for him or her. When corresponding with higher-status people, propose to meet “in or near your office.”
Example #2: You show up late to a meeting with a fellow product manager.
Analysis: Tardiness is the classic power move because it says, “My time is more valuable than yours, so it’s okay for you to wait for me.” To be sure, we’ve all been late due to circumstances out of our control, so it’s not always a reliable signal. But usually it says something. Think about it: Would you allow yourself to be late to a meeting with Barack Obama? Certainly not.
Example #3: You and your coworker are both marketing assistants at your company. He mentions he’s working on a sales proposal. You proactively say, “I’d be more than happy to take a look and tell you how it could be improved.”
Analysis: Sounds harmless? Usually it is harmless. But be careful. When you make the unsolicited offer to tell someone how they can improve, you’re implying that you are able to see flaws in his work that he cannot see, and that he ought to be happy to accept your feedback. If the other person sees himself as your peer, he may not view you as someone who should be telling him how to improve, and may be resentful rather than appreciative.
Remember, even if you aren’t trying to signal you are more powerful, an inadvertent power move is still a power move, and it can irritate decision makers you’d rather impress.
The conclusion is not to suck up to people of higher status. Slavishly affirming everything an important person says is unimpressive, to say nothing of dishonest. Nor is the answer to disrespect people of lower status or to flaunt superiority. Presenting yourself as a Big Deal repels people below you, who won’t feel inspired or loyal. It also repels people above you, who will interpret your braggadocio as insecurity. Rather, the point is that some people require a bit more finesse. If you want to build a relationship with someone of higher status, know that you are supposed to be accommodating.
The social terrain at the highest levels of power and influence can be treacherous. If you wish to cultivate and strengthen ties with your boss, boss’s boss, top officials, or other people in high places, think about how the power imbalance affects your expected social behavior. A little bit of conscientiousness in this department goes a long way.
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