John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett in The Class sketch,  first broadcast on The Frost Report on 7 April 1966, BBC Televisio (Source Wikimedia)
Ideas for Leaders #216

Social Status, Performance and Managing Stress

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Key Concept

Leaders and managers may be underestimating the impact of social status in the business world. New research links higher social status to healthier biological responses to stress, as well as positive behavioural outcomes, such as higher performance levels and greater generosity to colleagues. This insight into the power of social status can help leaders and managers anticipate problems and conflicts, and encourage better performance from their teams and business units.

Idea Summary

Social status relates to the prestige, esteem and respect that managers and employees receive from their colleagues, subordinates and superiors. While in society, social status can be attained through wealth in addition to power, social status in the business world is often a function of hierarchy. Executives and managers will benefit from a higher social status than front-line employees because of their position at a higher rung of the proverbial ladder. Even “ad-hoc” or temporary hierarchy — being given a leadership position on a project team, for example — can give someone a sense of achieving a higher social status.

In an experiment involving police officers placed in a stressful situation, Columbia Business School professor Modupe Akinola and professor Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco, showed that officers with a sense of higher social status had better biophysical responses to the stress than officers who viewed themselves as lower in social status. Specifically, higher testosterone, a healthier cardio-vascular rate, and better cardiac efficiency enabled the officers to have a more adaptive, effective response to the stress.

Akinola and Mendes then went further and proved, through a second experiment, that the link between social status and beneficial health responses wasn’t just correlational. Instead, by randomly manipulating the social status of their subjects, Akinola and Mendes showed that social status actually caused the changes in biological response and behaviours.

For this second experiment, instead of asking participants (male undergraduates this time) for their own perception of their social status, Akinola and Mendes randomly placed the subjects in high and low status roles.  The experiment was designed around two-person partnerships — one person the leader, the other person the supporter — working together on a complicated, fast-paced video game. Once again, the high status subjects exhibited adaptive physiological responses, as measured by the researchers, which meant that they were in a better position to handle the stress of the situation. In addition, the subjects assigned to the high status roles in the partnership not only performed at a higher level, but also were generous in allocating resources to their partners and also had a positive opinion of their partners. The low status subjects performed less well, and were not as generous — neither in the allocation of resources nor in their opinions of their partners.

Business Application

The health benefits of social status have been studied before, although the evidence was more correlational than causal. For example, social status in society is often tied to wealth; that the wealthy are healthier is not necessarily a physiological response to being wealthy, but simply the logical outcome of having a healthier lifestyle and greater access to the best health care available.

Akinola and Mendes, however, have shown that in the workplace, social status (self-esteem and respect from others, for example) is more than a psychological by-product of positional authority. Instead, social status will have a direct impact on how well people respond to stress, perform tasks, and relate to others. Managers must keep this in mind when allocating tasks, creating teams, or considering promotions.

The circumstances of the second experiment, for example, are often replicated in the workplace: When a task or a project is launched, certain employees or managers will be given leadership roles while others are given supporting roles. Managers can expect those in leadership roles to want to work hard and do well, and they will most likely perform well; in addition, they will, in the research terminology, “thrive physiologically.” However, the research would indicate that special attention must be paid to ensure that those in a supporting role do not suffer from the consequences of lower social status. One way to mitigate this, according to professor Akinola, is to link their activity in the task or project to upward mobility, thus inferring that the supporting role work will lead to a greater social status.

The research also has some interesting implications concerning 360-degree feedback: the higher the social status of the respondent, the more generous the feedback. But don’t expect the same treatment from those positioned lower on the social scale — an indication that 360-degree feedback may sometimes be skewed against the person being evaluated through no fault of their own.  

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Idea conceived

  • April 2013

Idea posted

  • September 2013

DOI number



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