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Shh! We are talking about status and pecking order and noone must hear!

Posted on: October 2, 2009

I spent 6 years’ training as a psychologist and status and pecking order were rarely mentioned. Yet, both status and pecking order are central to much of what we do, and at the heart of how we feel about the way others treat us.

I think we should discuss status & pecking order more – at least in the circles of organizational designers and developers.

All important topics are subject to taboos, and status & pecking order is not exception. But it is the job of social scientists to break taboos. If a subject is too important to be discussed openly, then it is also too important to be ignored!

Status explains anger

Take this explanation for anger, for example.  We are angry when we feel we have been demoted.  Just writing the explanation creates a frisson of annoyance.

Resolving anger requires restoring status

Because demotion is often the cause of anger, the quickest way to restore someone’s good temper is to resolve the status issue. Apologize. Help them take their rightful place in the pecking order.

Anger often signals unnoticed shifts in status

Sometimes, someone’s anger takes us by surprise.  Children, for example, sometimes assert themselves rather unexpectedly.  Suddenly, they feel they should be consulted about something, and startle us with their asssertion.

We have to mark shifts in status of our professional colleagues

In professional groups, shifts in status happen too.  Sometimes status changes are marked by rites-of-passage, like graduation day.  We are reminded to start involving people much more deeply in decisions that affect them. But there are also moments where there are no rites-of-passage.

I not only studied psychology. I taught it too – in the last 3 years of the 6 year training period. My students were going from students to legally-qualified-and-registered-psychologists. Graduation was not enough for them. They needed to do something which marked the change. Sometimes they hired me as a consultant (they were the boss now), or they took me out to lunch (and paid)!

It took me one or two batches of students to pick up the trend, and then I began to enjoy the transition.

I also started to build ‘rites of passage’ into our professional internship system.  Students could request a slot at ‘conferences’ to show off a project that (in their minds) showed them using our professional skills at a professional level.  They volunteered, and no one ever missed these sessions because they were very good!

Slides down the status ladder are equally interesting.   In the world of management, which pivots around power, slides-down can be quite entertaining.  I’d be amazed at how quickly people noticed poor contributors, and the way non-performers began to fall off email lists and not be consulted when important decisions were being made.

How much of strife at work is due to mismanaged status?

It strikes me that many issues in the workplace come about because we haven’t considered status issues.

Active listening

Restoring a person’s status, when it has been lowered accidently and even innocently, is sometimes seen as an insult to the next person. Yet anger from accidental reductions in status is easy to resolve. Dealing with anger is one of the 3 scenarios in active listening. No one should be in management position or in a customer service role without understanding and applying these scenarios.

Loyalty to our colleagues

We are also only pleased by an increase in someone else’s status when our own status is fairly secure. Those of us who are organizational designers and developers can’t expect people to manage or deal with customers when they are uncertain about their own status. Where management have reached the LCD of asserting will, rather than talking about joint goals, we can expect status wars to erupt spontaneously.

Rituals for status shifts

We need rituals for younger people to show off their new skills and be accorded the status they deserve. Without these rituals, only a few will discover for themselves appropriate ways to claim the status that is their due. Others will be angered by the lack of recognition. And when we miss that signal too, we hurt ourselves. We should expect passive aggression or outright hissy fits.

Do you think we should talk about status and pecking order more forthrightly?

I’ve noticed that not even the new ‘service designers‘ talk about status and pecking order. Funny that. Must ask them.  Why do we ignore status & pecking order?

How many problems at work do you think we could resolve if we were more thoughtful about status and pecking order?

And could we be more thoughtful about how we adjust our status rankings ‘as play unfolds’?

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3 Responses to "Shh! We are talking about status and pecking order and noone must hear!"

Pecking orders are so subtle and pervasive that we rarely notice them. I teach improvisation and first-time student are often amazed to discover that they’ve been playing sophisticated status games all their life.

Interesting. Interesting site, too.

Thanks Jo. I like what you say on the topic and I think you’ve got your finger on it. In preparation of a learning event on the subject, I’m struggling with the “taboo” as we speak. Very clever and articulated people will have none of it because they can’t see the point. I’ve got a few hypotheses about this reluctance.

1) It is very counter-intuitive to think that this could be so important without us already being aware of it.

2) we find it too simple/reductionist/humiliating/repulsive to honestly compare ourselves to other primates.

3) being self-deceptive serve us rather well in that realm (most of the time) so we’d rather “play blind” and favour heuristics over knowledge.

I thing we should found a society for the appreciation of status and pecking orders 🙂

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