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If You Want To Lead, You Need To Embrace The Basic Human Need For Status

2024 March 17
by Greg Satell

Scientists have long found that our brains evolved to accommodate more social relationships. For example, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research suggests that the optimal group size for humans is 150, significantly larger than other primates. Throughout history, humans have developed hierarchies to help us to collaborate on complex tasks.

Yet recently, pundits started advocating for flatter organizations. In 2014, Gary Hamel declared that Bureaucracy Must Die in Harvard Business Review. Around the same time, entrepreneur Brian Robertson developed the non-hierarchical Holacracy, that was adopted by firms such as Zappos and Medium.

It hasn’t gone well and the idea of leaderless organizations has largely been discredited. In The Status Game, veteran science reporter Will Storr explains why. Evolution has wired our brains to seek status in order to carve out our identity within and between groups. To lead effectively we need to support, not ignore, the basic human need for identity and status.

The Games We Play

One of the most fascinating—and important— findings is that there is more than one status game and we are playing versions of all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time. These games have to do with prestige, dominance and virtue. They manifest themselves in myriad different ways, not only in humans, but in primates and other animals as well.

The most familiar status games have to do with success. Studies with chimpanzees show that they, like humans, will copy successful behaviors, such as how to retrieve a treat with a stick but, as Storr points out in his book, humans will copy everything. Kids playing Little League will not only copy a hero’s swing, but how they walk up to the plate, wear their uniform, wave to the crowd and so on.

We’ve all come to know dominance games from the popularity of “Karen” videos like this famous one involving Port Authority commissioner Caren Turner. As much as we may hate to admit it, we all have a need to be recognized and asserting dominance is one way to do that, which is why we’re sometimes prone to the most embarrassingly atrocious behavior.

The final, and sometimes most insidious, type of status game is the virtue game, in which we engage behaviors to prove our goodness. This is often helpful as when people invest resources in competitive altruism that benefit good causes. In other cases, such as when people lie to cover up wrongdoing in order to show their loyalty, it can lead to serious problems.

Forming Group Identity

Status doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in relation to others. So the first step towards acquiring status is to form an identity within a group. Consider a study done in the 1960s, called the Robbers Cave Experiment, which involved 22 boys of similar religious, racial and economic backgrounds invited to spend a few weeks at a summer camp.

In the first phase, they were separated into two groups of “Rattlers” and “Eagles” that had little contact with each other. As each group formed its own identity, they began to display hostility on the rare occasions when they were together. During the second phase, the two groups were given competitive tasks and tensions boiled over, with each group name calling, sabotaging each other’s efforts and violently attacking one another.

Humans naturally form tribes. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to out-group members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection, which explains how groups favor those who share their attributes in the hopes that those attributes will be propagated.

It is for similar reasons that Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s that  electronic media would lead to a global village and people would be able to instantly exchange ideas and experiences across vast chasms of time and space. Communities would no longer be tied to a physical place, but intermingle with others on a world stage.

Yet McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history, as long separated—and emotionally charged—cultural norms would now constantly intermingle, clash… and explode.

He wasn’t wrong.

Moral Outbidding and the Purity Spiral

Once we pick a side, we form a group identity and set out to prove our worth by supporting the party line. In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the point that many of our opinions are a product of our inclusion in a particular team. Because our judgments are so closely intertwined with our identity, contrary views can feel like an attack. So we feel the urge to lash out and silence opposition.

As players vie to signal identity, group polarization leads to “moral outbidding,” a purity spiral ensues. The most extreme views are proudly displayed, creating strong bonds of group identity and what Wittgenstein calls a private language begins to form. Inclusion in the team is no longer enough, we want to be star players.

The more we dedicate ourselves to a particular status game, the more difficult it is to relate outside of it. Top notch athletes, Special Forces operators, Wall Street traders and members of religious cults often find they have difficulty relating to others who play different status games than they do. The same thing happens with conspiracy groups like QAnon.

Clearly, the drive for status can be positive, leading people to achieve amazing things. It’s hard to imagine people like Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi or Michael Jordan, all who showed meager early promise, being able to achieve the things they did without an intense inner drive to acquire status. Each was motivated by early failures and humilations.

Yet we also need to recognize that it is the same elements of human nature that lead to great achievements that also led ordinary people to attack police officers at the Capitol on January 6th, to kill innocents on October 7th and to commit all the senseless crimes against humanity. As much as we hate to admit it, we all have that terrible capacity.

Leaders Create The Games. We Need To Make Sure They Are The Right Ones

A simple truth about status games is that we all play them, whether we are aware of it or not. It is our drive for status that helps us form and signal identity, figure out who we are in relation to others and derive a sense of meaning about our existence, whether that meaning is rooted in achievement, care for those around us or our ability to enforce our will on others.

One of the reasons that the various schemes of leaderless organizations that have arisen over the past decade ago have not taken root is that they ignore these basic facts of human nature. They are, in large part, a cop-out. Without the formal recognition of status conferred by a hierarchy, people resort to informal signals and, often, a kind of law of the jungle takes root.

One of the things that I’ve learned in two decades of studying social movements such as the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe is that, while to the outside they may look amorphous, the ones that are successful have very clear governance structures. They are explicit about their values. Everybody knows the rules and follows them.

As leaders, we also need to understand that the drive for status is also an underlying element of culture. Lou Gerstner wrote that “I came to see, in my time at IBM, culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—It is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value…What does the culture reward and punish – individual achievement or team play, risk taking or consensus building?”

So we need to ask ourselves, how are we conferring status on others? Do we recognize those who take credit or those who support their colleagues? Do aspiring executives get credit for launching new initiatives that never go anywhere, or successfully managing operations? Do we prize cruelty over kindness, avarice over honesty, dominance over hard work?

Everything is a choice, whether we know we’re making it or not.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto and on LinkedIn.

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