The Peril of Power Without Status

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The Peril of Power Without Status

Jobs that grant control over resources but lack respect can ignite conflict.
An illustration of an angry person with a large, sad shadow.
Problems arise when employees are put in positions that sit low in the corporate hierarchy but give them leverage over coworkers. | Illustration by Stefani Billings

Face it: Despite talk of flat, egalitarian workplaces where everyone is a “team member,” some workers have more status or power than others. Some people have both status and power, some have neither, while others have some combination of the two. And, says Nir Halevy, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, those with little status but plenty of power can create corporate havoc not because they’re unpleasant people, but because their unenviable positions make them prone to bad behavior.

Managers can reduce conflict, Halevy and his fellow researchers conclude, by avoiding placing workers in positions that sit low in a corporation’s status hierarchy but that give them significant power over others.

In research published in the February issue of Organization Science, Halevy, a professor of organizational behavior, says that such high-power/low-status individuals are at risk of treating others in rude or demeaning ways. The paper, with lead author Eric M. Anicich of Columbia University, Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia, and Nathanael J. Fast of University of Southern California, emphasizes the seldom-recognized distinction between status and power. By their definitions, people with status are respected and admired, while people with power control resources and influence outcomes.

Compare, for instance, the position of chief executive, which carries both power and status, with the position of professor emeritus, which bestows status but little power. Both the professor and the CEO benefit from the positive feelings that come with high status and thus are likely to treat others well, the researchers say.

On the flip side, people in low-status jobs often receive little respect and thus experience negative feelings about themselves and others. “People with a lot of control over resources but little of the respect that comes with high status may be prone to act based on the negative feelings that they have,” says Halevy. “And they can have a negative impact because they control resources, so power without status is toxic.”

Distasteful temperaments aren’t necessarily the root cause of conflict.

In one of several experiments, the researchers recruited 226 adults and randomly assigned them into four organizational roles reflecting different combinations of status and power levels. Those with high power were told that “you need to lay off one of your employees,” while those with little power were told that “your boss asked you to lay off one of the other employees.” Each person then wrote a layoff memo. Then, a separate group of individuals, who remained uninformed about the power and status level of any of the writers, each read one layoff notice and reported the level of conflict they anticipated with the writer. The recipients also rated the extent to which the layoff memos were “demeaning,” “humiliating,” “degrading,” and “uncomfortable.” Those who received memos written by people in the low-status/high-power role were most likely to regard the messages as demeaning and to anticipate conflict with the writer.

Another experiment, in which the researchers polled 108 anonymous workers, determined that conflict initiated by a person in a low-status/high-power job is likely to continue and perhaps even escalate into a spiral of incivility. The target retaliates, causing the originator to feel even worse and to act again, leading to yet more retaliation by the target.

Managers trying to reduce workplace friction need to remember that distasteful temperaments aren’t necessarily the root cause of conflict. “Don’t single out people in those tough positions and say they have a difficult personality,” says Halevy. “Rather, understand that sometimes the role is the source of the problem.”

The researchers say that managers should examine positions of low status and high power and consider elevating role-holders’ stature, perhaps by changing the job title or acknowledging the workers’ contributions to the company’s mission and success. And when an employee gains additional power, he or she should be given a commensurate boost in status as well.

And what if you yourself sense that you’re acting out due to your own position of low status but high power? By mistreating others, you’ll further reduce your status in the eyes of coworkers and feel even more disrespected, setting up a “vicious cycle” of conflict, the researchers say. You’re better off using your energy to boost your status by, for instance, contributing more and demonstrating your competence. “People should be aware that there are constructive ways to ascend the status hierarchy,” says Halevy.

Nir Halevy is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “When the Bases of Social Hierarchy Collide: Power Without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict,” written with lead author Eric M. Anicich of Columbia University, Adam D. Galinsky of Columbia, and Nathanael J. Fast of University of Southern California, was published in Organization Science in February.

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