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The role social status plays in effective leadership

What would you do if you had the power to rule the world? Don’t even think about it unless you possess the status to go with it. Power without concomitant status will give you nothing but grief, according to research by organizational behavior professor Alison Fragale.

Power of Influence

“The world decides there’s only so much power you’re allowed to have,” Fragale says. “If your power and respect are out of balance, people react negatively to you, and they’ll find ways to shut you down.”

Fragale studied what happens to people who have a lot of power but are held in low regard by others. She worked with Jennifer R. Overbeck of the University of Southern California and Margaret A. Neale of Stanford University, and they published their findings in “Resources vs. respect: Social judgments based on targets’ power and status positions” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in July 2011.

Psychologists rank the basic human need for power and status right up there with the need for affiliation and achievement. Though power (having the ability to control resources) and status (being held in high regard by others) often go together, they are not perfectly correlated.

Fragale, who studies hierarchies in groups, observed that people who have power without status have a hard time in their organizations. Every organization has a hierarchy, even if it minimizes its formal or informal symbols. The boss might no longer sit in a corner office on a higher floor than the rest of the staff. But at the end of the day, someone makes the final decisions.

“One of the most frustrating experiences people have is in situations where no one is in charge,” Fragale says. “It’s impossible to get anything done.”

Every organization has people in power who are not well-regarded. These high-power, low-status people struggle to lead and build a well-functioning team. Data from a study Fragale is leading indicates that people are less likely to take the advice of high-power, low-status people, even when the advice is good.

Fragale’s research might be the first to peel apart power from status. It has implications for managers whose departments will run more smoothly if they give power to people who can influence others to comply. Her work also factors into negotiations. The power relationship between parties strongly influences how negotiations turn out, and the longstanding advice has been to teach people to do things that will increase their power vis-à-vis the person they’re negotiating with. But acquiring power without the status to legitimate it can backfire.

“People will resent you and resist your attempts to influence them,” she says. “You have to think about acquiring and wielding power in line with how other people see you.”

Power is something people can take; status is not. “You don’t get to decide how much status you get,” Fragale says. “Status is a phenomenon that exists solely in the heads of others.”

Fragale and her colleagues conducted two experiments that converged in telling the same story using different methods. In the first experiment, Fragale listed occupational categories – bouncers, authors, artists, professors – and asked respondents to judge the characteristics of the people in those professions and rate how much power and status they thought each person had. She found that the occupations rated similarly in power and status were rated similarly in terms of their dominance and warmth. These results indicated that people have well-developed schemas and mental models they use to organize their world by power and status.

In the second experiment, Fragale again used the occupations list. But this time she told respondents how much control over resources the person in the occupation had and how well-regarded each person was before respondents were asked to ascribe characteristics to the people in each occupation. Comparing those responses with the responses in the first experiment gave Fragale confidence that she was tapping into power and status in the first experiment.

“The psychological sequence we were able to document was: I see your power and status; I make inferences about what kind of person you are; and I use those inferences to forecast how you’re going to behave in a future interaction,” Fragale says. “We’re showing the sequence matters for changing the nature of interpersonal interaction.”

Previous studies show that power without status causes people to demean others. Building on that work, Fragale’s research shows that people attribute negative characteristics to high-power, low status people, demonstrating how a vicious cycle can develop in interpersonal relationships: I expect you to be bad, so I treat you like you’re bad; you feel insecure because of that and demean me to convince yourself you are better than me; that proves to me I was right to think you’re bad.

In the workplace, individuals generally hold negative views of those who control resources. High status protects against these negative judgments. People will accept hard-to-swallow decisions that come from a person they highly respect. By the same token, they’ll resist decisions made by someone they hold in low regard. Managers need to take into account an individual’s status before giving him or her additional power.

“Don’t assume a formal position guarantees that someone is granted the status as well,” Fragale says.

Key take-aways

  • Your ability to acquire and wield power without negative consequences is bounded by how others view your status.
  • Understand the distinction between the formal hierarchy of power and the informal hierarchy of status.
  • From a management perspective, recognize who you’re giving power to and how they’re viewed by their coworkers and subordinates.