Why status matters (Guest commentary)

Neuroscience shows increasing workers’ sense of status boosts engagement
By Andrew Treash
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/25/2011

We all have interactions at work that influence how we see ourselves in the workplace hierarchy. Whether it’s a change in job duties, a pay hike or a conversation with a colleague, work experiences affect how important we feel at work.

Some leaders may find it obvious employees want to feel like they play an important role at work. They may also have noticed when employees feel good about themselves, they work differently. However, they might not understand why, exactly. Studies in neuroscience can help provide some answers.

When we are exposed to a stimulus, our brains enter an “approach” or “avoid” state, depending on whether we process the stimulus as being good or bad, according to David Rock, founder and CEO of Results Coaching Systems, in his paper SCARF: A Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.

In an approach state, people feel and think better, take more risks and are more creative.

“An approach response is synonymous with the idea of engagement,” writes Rock. In an avoid state, our bodies devote less energy to cognitive processes such as memory. We become more cautious and make fewer connections between ideas.

Rock cites a study where participants were divided into two groups and asked to solve a maze. In group A, the maze involved getting a mouse to a piece of cheese. In group B, the mouse had to escape from an owl. After doing the maze exercise, people in group A were better able to solve creative problems than those in group B.

Based on this, employers should want employees to be in an approach state as much as possible. However, this is harder than it might seem.

“Avoid is the default state,” says Penny Paucha, principal at Instincts at Work, an executive coaching firm based in Toronto. Leaders wishing to promote approach responses must be vigilant in doing so because it’s easy to set off a threat response in our brains.

Rock’s SCARF model sets out five interconnected ways of thinking about our social experiences that can put someone in an approach or avoid state: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

“Status is about relative importance to others,” writes Rock, citing studies showing increased status has the same neurological effect as a financial windfall. On the other hand, a reduction in status causes the same effect as physical pain.

When it comes to status, humans are hard-wired to look for their places in the social hierarchy, says Paucha.

Organizations that pay attention to status can gain a competitive advantage by increasing engagement, says to Paucha. Reducing status threats will improve happiness, innovation, collaboration, job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

The challenge, then, is to incorporate status-lifting experiences in the workplace, which is rife with encounters that affect our feelings of status. Apart from the obvious things such as promotions, changes in job duties and pay adjustments, there are countless ways status can be threatened through seemingly routine and harmless interactions. Merely speaking to a supervisor or being given advice can result in a status threat, according to Rock.

A leader can give necessary advice and feedback without threatening a worker’s status by asking permission in a sincere and respectful way before giving advice, says Paucha.

“‘Can I share something with you?’ or worse ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ is sure to trigger a threat response,” says Paucha. “Asking permission in a sincere and respectful way may sound like this: ‘Would you like to have a discussion about ways to approach that project?’ ‘When would be a convenient time for you to have that discussion?’ or ‘Would you like some input from me?’”

Status threats caused by performance reviews can be mitigated by incorporating an element of self-evaluation into the process. Letting the employee assist in planning a strategy for improvement and measuring success will help raise her feeling of status. In addition, a new manager can mitigate status threats by being curious and asking for information from workers without imposing status.

Leaders should also be aware status is not a zero-sum game — you don’t have to raise one person’s status at the expense of another’s. Brain research shows when a person feels she is improving at something, her feeling of status increases. Therefore, leaders should recognize a person’s achievements through positive reinforcement.

However, caution should also be exercised to ensure the right person is recognized for achievements.

“Status is threatened when a person is not recognized for her contributions,” says Paucha. If a worker feels her contributions are being credited to someone else, her sense of status will decrease.

Considering the harmful effects of low status, should an organization get rid of anything that could indicate status, such as corner offices and executive parking spaces? Not necessarily, says Paucha. Apart from the difficulty in wiping a workplace entirely clean of status symbols, we want leaders to be seen as having earned their stripes and symbols can help to do that. However, when employees sense they are being treated unfairly, it leads to avoid responses.

Leaders wishing to improve engagement would be wise to focus on status and the other four interconnected elements of the SCARF model (certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) at their workplaces. It may provide a relatively inexpensive way of having workers be at their best.

Andrew Treash is a product writer for Consult Carswell. He can be reached at andrew.treash@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.consultcarswell.com for more information.

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