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Want to Build Your Personal Brand at Work? Pay Attention to Your Status

We all have a place in the social pecking order. Knowing what that is can help in the construction of a strong personal brand.

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Critical to the success of your personal brand is your perceived status. Status is about your place in the social pecking order. It’s about your social value in comparison with that of others. It’s about the respect and deference others accord to you—or not. We’ve all known colleagues to whom others seem to swarm to seek advice, to socialize, to confide in, and to get approval. And we know others who are virtually invisible. No one seeks their advice. No one confides in them. No one is looking to bask in their dim light.

Needless to say, high status is better than low status. There’s at least one exception, though. If you are a high-status individual, with all the interpersonal and reputational perks that status brings, you’d benefit from occasionally stepping down from Mount Olympus to empathize and gain the trust and favor of those who may respect you but find you distant and aloof. That quality of empathy that characterizes the lowering of one’s status is also called humility, which, incidentally, further enhances your status rather than diminishes it.

But how can we elevate our status in the first place? Are we in the clear if we occupy a leadership role on the organizational flowchart? Not according to scientific research, which shows that status isn’t always commensurate with one’s position in the hierarchy. Rice University professor Rick Wilson studied low- and high-status leaders and observed, “In teams with high-status leaders, followers are more likely to go along with them, even though the leader does not necessarily set a good example.” Low-status leaders, the researchers found, had more difficulty getting their teams to follow their direction, which in turn led them to punish team members more. Team members responded by punishing their leaders in return—creating something of a vicious circle.

Other studies have confirmed that low status combined with power can generate bad outcomes: University of Southern California professor Nathanael Fast and his colleagues found that executives with power but low status were more likely to assign demeaning tasks to subordinates, leading the researchers to conclude that “having power without status . . . may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill.”

Studies of “status syndrome” demonstrate that the desire for status is universal among humans. “Everyone cares about status whether they’re aware of it or not,” argues Professor Cameron Anderson of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, noting further that “status differences can be demoralizing. Whenever you don’t feel valued by others it hurts, and the lack of status hurts more people than we think.”

In a study of farming villages in Bolivia, for example, UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Michael Gurven concluded that differences in the villagers’ social status “impacts their perceptions, their level of stress and their health.” Interestingly, these villages had relatively egalitarian social structures—but that did not mean there was no variety in social status. “We’re able to show that there are measurable differences in recognized social status even within the egalitarian context, and that these differences matter,” Gurven reported. “They’re all equal, and yet social status is important.”

It isn’t just humans with higher status who live longer and healthier lives; some similarly situated animals do, too. A zoology doctoral student, Nora Lewin of Michigan State University, has observed, “High-ranking members in hyena clans reproduce more, they live longer and appear to be in better overall health.”

If it isn’t power that automatically confers higher status in an organization, is it perhaps the value we contribute to others? Well, performance does matter—that study of Bolivian farmers showed that those who contributed more to the group were held in greater esteem—but as we’ve often witnessed, or even experienced ourselves, good performance in a complex and competitive business environment doesn’t always translate to higher status. Plenty of managers who are subject-matter experts and highly capable individual contributors seem to get stuck in the middle rungs of the corporate ladder. Their abilities make them valued employees, but in letting their “performance speak for itself,” they may end up being defined by their jobs rather than defining themselves.

What does consistently elevate one’s status in the workplace is speaking up. Studies from the Haas School of Business discovered that people who speak up and appear confident are perceived to be more competent to lead.

The main findings of the studies were that assertive behavior can help people attain influence, at least in small groups. And while hundreds of previous studies had shown that dominant people take charge, what wasn’t clear until now is why others so willingly followed them. The new research found that assertive people attained such influence because the rest of the group saw them as more competent than everybody else. They were seen as more creative, dedicated, and harder working than the others—even when they actually weren’t. In the studies, small groups performed various tasks, and even when the dominant personalities didn’t perform well in the group math and creativity tasks, they were still seen as the most competent, both by other group members and by the judges who viewed the recorded sessions afterward.

The big—and surprising—lesson, according to the Haas researchers, is that being assertive and dominant, not skill itself, is the strongest predictor of your reputation for being skilled. Assertiveness and dominance also induce others to follow your lead due to that perception.

When you understand how your status at work impacts your personal brand, you’ll be able to make choices that contribute to favorable perceptions of your overall executive presence.

Excerpted from my book Executive Presence—The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.

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