Status: Why It Matters, How To Get It And How To Keep It

Imagine you’ve just walked into a meeting or networking event where you don’t know anyone. How do you know who in the room has status? One simple test is to see which person tells a lame joke that then has everybody laughing.

Typically we think of status as a great thing – it makes you feel good, it lowers your cost of influence, and should make it easier for you to gain many benefits. But status is more than about the big house, the luxury car, or the tailored Italian suit you might wear. Unlike other forms of capital – financial or human – status is a type of social capital, and is therefore not fully owned by the individual who possesses it. Other members of your social network, or colleagues at work apportion to you the deference that is the basis of your status.

For Matthew S. Bothner, a strategy professor at German business school ESMT Berlin, status is something you can see quickly when there are gestures of respect flowing at someone from people who are themselves respected – in other words, if you are highly regarded by others who are highly regarded. In the video interview below, Bothner discusses the halo effect of having the status of another positively rubbing off on you, but also warns about the halo that you give to someone else that greases their way so well that they end up surpassing you, at least momentarily.

He gives the example of Steve Jobs approaching John Sculley, then at Pepsi Co. and asking him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Sculley decided to join Apple, and after an initial honeymoon during which Bloomberg described them as the “dynamic duo,” was ultimately responsible for Jobs’ dismissal.

So handle status with care, and the blow-ups it can lead to. Bothner describes the pitfalls of status similarity, and how it might play out in the boardroom. “When two individuals are ambiguous about who has more status, and can’t decide who should defer to whom, that can lead to escalations, homicide, angry words at a minimum – all sort of negative outcomes.” Though the WSJ has yet to report this year on a stabbing in the boardroom, the underlying lesson is to be sensitive to the subtle but very real social conditions that can give rise to the desire to attack.

Status has a dark side, according to the work Bothner has done with Ned Smith at Northwestern Kellogg and Young-Kyu Kim at Korea University on status and performance. By studying the performance-related consequences of status in two sports – golf and Nascar – they were able to see that at very high levels of status the golfers do worse, and the Nascar drivers drive more slowly. The research suggests that with very high status comes complacency and distraction – getting lost in the Woods, if you will. Bothner argues that people who acquire status have to be good stewards, and cannot be corrupted or made lazy by it. Nor should they be diverted by all the people that want a piece of them now they have got their status.

Matthew Bothner concludes the interview with powerful advice to MBA students, or indeed anyone looking to use networking, to advance their own status: give more than you take. “If I give something to you, you will reciprocate in some way – that is part of the human condition,” he explains. “The failure path in networking is to go out and try as artfully as you can to take. If you build a network in a more authentic way, which is simply to give and create value where you can, you will build a reputation and status a lot faster than the typical networking techniques.”