“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.
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David Geffen is high status in the entertainment world, 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 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 likable. He met with his boss to go over his process and 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 sold 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.
Remember, even if you aren’t trying to signal you are more powerful, an inadvertent power move is still a power move, and can irritate decision makers you’d rather impress.”