The Mad Hatter's Teaparty, illustration by John Teniel for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland 1895
Ideas for Leaders #287

Deferring to Others: When Able People Prefer Lower Status

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Key Concept

Why do some able people opt for positions of lower status, though they may actually desire the respect associated with higher status? According to this Idea, others’ expectations are a key driver of the status individuals opt for in group settings. If they believe that they lack the characteristics to help a group succeed, they will opt for lower status in that group.  

Idea Summary

The desire for high status is widely considered a universal human motive. Those with higher status tend to be listened to more, and are often perceived as having more power. It has even been argued that this desire is an evolved adaptation, important for ascending hierarchies as a means to secure resources. In recent years, however, research has shown that many individuals feel more comfortable when placed in lower status positions, and became distressed when put in positions of higher status. Some even actively avoid power and status.

Researchers from Berkeley Haas School of business put to test when and why people might prefer lower status rank in a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Science. Through five studies, Professor Cameron Anderson and his fellow researchers found that though individuals desire high levels of respect, they do indeed tend to opt for middle or lower rank in certain circumstances. Most of the time, this is because they believe they lack characteristics important to a group’s success. In addition, they found that pursuit of status rank was context specific; an individual might seek higher status rank in some groups, but opt for lower status rank in others. This cross-group variation also depends on the value individuals believed they provided to each group.

However, these findings were only true for individuals who believed their group knew of their past performance. For individuals who believed their group was unaware of their past performance, they preferred higher status rank regardless of their self-perceived value to the group.

One thing remains clear: the status rank that individuals seem to prefer is distinguishable from their desire for respect. In other words, though they may opt for lower status rank, individuals are still likely to desire high levels of respect.

Business Application

Others’ expectations seem to be the core driver of an individual’s self-perceived value to a group; as was shown in the findings of this research, people that believe they provide little value to the group also believe that others expect them to possess lower status ranks.

Moreover, the fact that this may change from group-to-group also suggests that preferences of status rank are less to do with an intrinsic drive for status, and more of a context-specific motivation that can lead individuals to accepting lower status when, for example, the expectations of others make it seem necessary to do so.

However, an important point raised by Anderson et al is that if all individuals in a group were to seek high-status rank, they would be driven to compete with one another, eventually resulting in the group struggling to coordinate actions and perform effectively. Therefore, some group members must defer; this research helps to clarify who does, when and why.

Understanding group dynamics is essential for managers in order for them to lead their teams most effectively. By remaining aware that lower ranking team members may have opted for such status because of the impression that others expected them to, managers can strive harder to ensure their contributions are acknowledged and encouraged.

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Idea conceived

  • May 2012

Idea posted

  • December 2013

DOI number



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