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How well are you playing the Status Game?

founder experience leadership strategy Feb 01, 2022

One of the more interesting books published recently is Will Storr’s The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It. His thesis is that the desire for social status is the prime human motivation. New psychological grand theories are always welcome. You will never see life in quite the same way after you read Eric Berne’s Games People Play, which shows that every human interaction was gamified long before Farmville came along. The idea of social status being important is not especially new. The need to be liked and respected by others is part of self-esteem, which was the second most important human motivation according to Abraham Maslow (although his 1948 classic ‘hierarchy of needs’ has undergone several revisions since). What is new, and radical, is the claim that competition for social status trumps every other motivation. And this is true not just in our social media-obsessed febrile times, but for all of history. It explains every conflict, including European dynastic struggles and the rise of Communism and Nazism.

The desire for social status is biological. Since we increase our chances of survival by co-operating with others, we need to be part of a successful group. Groups have ranks and hierarchies. Social winners within the group, those with the highest approval ratings, lived longer and reproduced most. Their offspring was inherited not just superior genes, but also group acclaim, which can be passed on generationally and survive for a period even when socially effective role models and behaviours are absent.

We are all subject to the peculiar magnetism of social status, drawn inexorably towards people we admire and repelled by those we don’t.  Storr shares numerous studies showing just how subconsciously sensitive to social status we are: talking, walking and acting differently in various social settings without even being aware of it. We act violently and irrationally when our status is threatened. We adapt and exaggerate our views and behaviour to win status in the groups we aspire to be part of and respected by. We give disproportionate influence to those in our social group, discounting those outside it.

You don’t have to look very far to find winners and losers in the social status game, which shifts rapidly and can often be measured using social media metrics. The likes of Lance Armstrong and JK Rowling were once treated like demi-gods. Now, for very different reasons, they have lost social status and influence. Both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s mis-steps have made people realise they are not impressive leaders, and their political fortunes have declined dramatically as followers realigned to new groups. Loss of status can be ruinous. Prince Andrew was never the most popular royal, but his deserved loss of social status condemns him to the wilderness regardless of the outcome of his legal cases. There are just as many status winners. Elon Musk has become the world’s richest man as much through the cult of Elon Musk as the economic performance of his companies. Donald Trump, is still beloved by millions of zealots. His repeated escapes from prosecution for his crimes and misdemeanours only seems to have added to his status as a trailblazer. Bizarrely he is the highest ranked ‘active’ person in Gallup's most admired man poll. Hilary Clinton topped the most admired women poll 22 times and still couldn’t beat him. Michelle Obama carries the flame for the next generation. We could list thousands more.

While the idea that social status is paramount is over-stated (there are other human motivations and causal factors), the focus on it gives founders a new lens through which to see the world and gain a potential edge. You can start playing the status game. There are two different kinds of games: success and virtue. Either you are more successful than others in the group or you are more virtuous. Both can boost your prestige and social status equally. We are drawn to virtuous people who can maintain and improve the group’s cohesion just as much as those who can increase its prosperity. Ideally you can play both at the same time: win your competitive struggles for success and at the same time strengthen the social group that you represent by championing aspirational values and behaviours. This is something that very few people have been able to pull off. Compare Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs: they have won the success game but they have lost the virtue game.

How can you win your own status games?

Firstly, be aware of your social groups. These are both physical (relationships with family, employees, customers etc.) and virtual (the communities you are and aspire to be a part of). Are you part of one group or several? Is there a hierarchy? If you aren’t in any, perhaps you should be. If there are people in there that you don’t respect, maybe you or they should move to another.

Think about how you are being influenced. Where do you get your news and information? Which voices do you listen to? Are you defaulting to your existing social groups? If so, then you may want to expand your range of inputs and consider more views from outside the group. This is a good strategy not just because it can boost your own chances of survival, but also the group’s, as well as strengthening your standing within it by introducing innovation.

Consider who you want to be part of your social groups, especially customers, and how you can make them feel a welcome part of your group. You want your solution to be the most socially desirable one. You want customers to feel that they have gained access to something special, a new service and a group that is worth being part of. This can be achieved with careful positioning, storytelling, customer experience design and community management. It is what distinguishes companies like Spotify and Peloton from also-rans.

Identify which virtue game you are playing. Purpose, values and culture are important, but not enough companies operationalise them. They prioritise the success game over the virtue game. Look closer at the research and this is not the way to do it. Purpose driven companies out-perform all others. Play the virtue game first and it will help you become more successful. So take time to get your values and culture right. These will define both the physical and virtual social groups you represent for employees and future customers. Be the kind of leader that attracts the people you want to be surrounded by.

Finally, don’t forget influencer marketing. If there is anything in the status game, and there surely is, influencer endorsement and creating a sense of FOMO are essential marketing strategies. They create and confer social prestige. Although less easy to predict and measure returns than more functional activities, such as performance marketing, they can be just as effective. Experiment to see what works for your business.

You can never neglect your brand and the need to create positive mental associations with it. The day you discover a rival with a more aspirational brand attracting your customers, is the day you lose the status game. Get ahead and stay ahead by becoming the leader, brand and business that gains the most acclaim in the groups that matter to you.


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