Electronic Design

Shedding Some Light On The Dark Side Of Status Differences

One day, Ogg, the Cro-Magnon design engineer, was shooting the breeze with his friend Grnk. "You know, our general manager Mr. Big wears a huge bone in his nose. I need a bone just like that."

"Watch out," Grnk warned. "Mr. Big gets very angry if someone tries to wear a nosebone as big as his!"

It's interesting to examine the importance of status from the perspective of different companies. At less status-conscious companies, a systematic effort is made to de-emphasize status differences between the various organization levels. You will find that executives, responsible for billions of sales dollars, have the same gray cubicles as entry-level engineers. All employees eat in the same cafeteria, and no private parking places exist on the premises.

In contrast, status-conscious companies purposely emphasize status differences. They isolate executives in thickly carpeted, paneled offices with efficient secretaries controlling access. These companies reward managers with special executive dining rooms and other symbols of executive privilege. I once visited a company that differentiated rank by wallpaper. When an employee moved into an office formerly used by an executive, her walls were downgraded to worker-level wallpaper. About a week later she was promoted, and the facilities people returned to rehang executive wallpaper over the newly installed worker-level paper.

Why do some organizations take pains to emphasize status? In many cases, status is used as a tool to emphasize the positional power associated with certain organizational roles. By reinforcing the authority of leaders, subordinates are more likely to follow. Lurking beneath this behavior, though, is a world view that leaders exist to give orders to their subordinates. Furthermore, because it's assumed that these leaders generally know more than their subordinates, they should control them. These organizations believe that they improve the effectiveness of their leaders by increasing their status. But, companies with this line of thinking are rarely conscious of the dark side of status.

It is, in fact, the dark side of status that concerns those organizations opting to de-emphasize status differences. Psychologists know that the likelihood for distorted communications between two individuals grows as the status gap between them widens. We generally prefer that high-status individuals view us favorably, so we emphasize good news when conversing with them. As a result, organizations with large status differences experience distorted communications and tend to acquire a skewed picture of reality. When markets and technologies move quickly, companies really can't afford such distorted information. Al-though other reasons exist for de-emphasizing status differences, the most pragmatic business reason is to improve communications.

Centuries ago, the most powerful ruler in the world, Haroun Al Raschid of Baghdad, was a very wise man. He wanted an accurate picture of what was happening in his kingdom, but he knew his high status would prevent people from communicating truthfully. Raschid solved the problem by adopting a disguise and wandering through the streets of Baghdad, learning about the city's true conditions. Because you may not have the option to wander the halls of your company in disguise, you might want to consider the alternative of de-emphasizing status differences.

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