Optimizing an Employee’s Sense of Status Sans a Promotion

| January 31, 2014 | 0 Comments

is[1]In my November newsletter, I talked about the importance of managers and leaders understanding how the brain functions. David Rock and his colleagues at the NeuroLeadership Institute have provided amazing research as well as recommendations on how we can better appreciate the reasons behind sometimes bewildering reactions from others as well as becoming much smarter at what really motivates folks. Before reading this article I would strongly suggest that you read What Leaders and Managers Need to Know about Neuroscience in my November newsletter as a refresher. http://leaderscove.com/leaders-managers-need-know-neuroscience

As promised, I would like to explore how we can optimize an employee’s feeling of status – in an honest and real manner.

Michael Marmot’s book, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, defines status as the most significant determinant of human longevity and health. This theory has been supported by other scientific studies. Status is about how we see ourselves in relation to others. A sense of being high up on the totem pole increases our dopamine levels – our reward circuitry. Conversely, a reduction in status or even the perception of a reduction activates our threat response. Think about when you were left out of a group or conversation that you thought was important. More than likely, you felt a sense of pain, actual physical pain. Your subsequent reactions to this threat may not have seemed logical to others and you yourself may not have quite understood why you were so emotional.

I want to explore the issue of status using two very different stories. I’ll start with my girls’ softball Coach, Mr. Nixon. Some of you may remember him from an earlier writing. The softball team was made up of girls from 3rd through 5th grade. I was quite short at the time and most pitchers had difficulty pitching to me. I also was a lousy batter. I walked to first base most of the time or struck out. When I finally did hit the ball – the second season, Mr. Nixon praised me for how I had improved. He was very smart – he never compared me to the other players. He had me competing against myself. I never felt my status on the team threaten. Once I walked on base, Mr. Nixon knew I had the potential of getting to home base because I was a very fast runner. My status was secure because Mr. Nixon pointed out the value I provided.

Now for the second story. Some years ago I was directing the hiring of a senior level position. We had chosen three leaders to interview the final candidates. They had responsibility to cover areas of technical capabilities, leadership capabilities and cultural fit. It was an exhaustive process. This company had been on a strong growth path and nearly doubled in size within a few years. In the past, when the company was smaller, the CFO had been a part of the process of interviewing senior management positions, but not this time. The interviewing process had been discussed in the management meetings and interviews were taking place. When it was recommended that the position be offered to a specific candidate, the CFO was visibly upset. In a side meeting with the CEO and myself, the CFO raked us over the coals. I was astounded by his reaction and the intensity of feeling. Nothing had been hidden, the process had been communicated. I was shocked and hurt. What I was feeling was exactly what the CFO had been feeling, but for different reasons. The CFO experienced a strong threat to his status and responded accordingly. I had not taken into account the impact that the exclusion would have on the CFOs sense of status. The quality of the process was irrelevant; because the CFO had previously been involved in the hiring process and this time he was not.

What can be learned from these two stories and how can we optimize our employees’ sense of status? Remember, when people feel threaten the limbic system goes into motion – unconsciously and under a second. The limbic system is the part of our brain that evaluates our environment for threats and rewards. It is a finely-tuned processor whose primary goal is to ensure survival. The reaction to a threat or reward is biological and quick – within a fifth of a second.

We need to appreciate the importance of status on a person’s sense of well being, of feeling safe, of feeling valued – matters greatly in how we as leaders and managers relate to them.

Be conscious of words that trigger a sense of threat such as ‘let me give you some feedback’, or ‘we need to make a change’. These phrases will most often produce a defensive response. Better to engage the person in developing the feedback. This of course takes more time in the beginning, but will most certainly save you time in the end. Here is an example. You need to give Mary feedback on a report she has submitted. Instead of going through and red-lining the report and handing it to her, sit down with her. “Mary, I’d like to sit down with you and review your report. There are a number of important areas you covered and I want to be sure I understand your analysis.” As you walk through the report, you can ask questions that may help Mary see areas that might need adjustment. This requires a dialogue.

If I had sat down with the CFO individually and discussed the interviewing process, I would have understood the CFOs view of being involved and we could have addressed his needs in the beginning. Would it have taken more time up front? Absolutely. Would it have saved time in the end and ensured relationships were not damaged? Absolutely.

Companies will sometimes hand out a promotion in order to increase a person’s sense of status. The inherent problem is the triggering of the Peter Principle which will eventually lead to a status threat, because they really can’t do the job.

Instead of using arbitrary promotions to increase a sense of status, consider providing opportunities to increase the employee’s skills and learnings. In this way they are competing against themselves, increasing their value. The reward circuitry does activate when people develop their talent, especially when it is recognized with specific acknowledgment.

Provide opportunities for employees to teach others or act as a mentor. These roles can be incredibly helpful it building ones perception of status.

These suggestions require one critical factor. Managers and leaders need to know their people. We need to make the time to listen, understand what individuals bring to the company, be aware of areas where they can become better and inspire them achieve more than they thought possible.

I would welcome hearing from you and your experiences when the threat of status has impacted forward movement for your organization.

Take care, Julia

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Category: Neuroscience for Management, Newsletters

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About the Author ()

Julia Hill-Nichols, SPHR, is the founder of LeadersCove, LLC. With over 30 years experience in operations and human capital management, Julia is gifted in the art and science of bridging strategic imperatives and a company’s human capabilities—executing for success, meeting bottom-line objectives and enlivening the people who are the organization’s lifeblood.

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