How do you play status games?

Can you really refuse to play a status game, if the other person insists? (picture copyright by Dano on flickr)

I must say, I’d rather not. My favorite interactions are those that are guided by looking for connection or content, not for status. But there is a reason why my work focuses on understanding formal and informal influence: I am fascinated by influence, status, power, the way people develop it and use it, what they can achieve by playing different games and I don’t think power as such (as the ability to make stuff happen) is a bad thing.

And, whether I facilitate a Net-Map session, negotiate a contract or give career coaching, I am acutely aware of status games and know when I am invited to play one. Unfortunately, they are not the kind of game people play for fun and entertainment. But it seems like for a lot of people, before they even allow themselves to (maybe) interact in a connection or content oriented way, they have to get this status thing out of the way, they have to tell you where they stand in the hierarchy of life and put you in your place as well. And then I know others who want to refuse to play these games and hope to get away with just ignoring the invitation. But does that work?

I have found that it works if you have a lot of characteristics that clearly define you as high status in the field you are in already. Let’s say you are a policy adviser in international development. If you are an older white male with PhD in leading position of one of the large international organizations you might get away wearing sandals to important meetings and thinking: “I don’t know why people always think they have to play power games, I just go into the meeting, I’m nice to everyone and they will listen to me.” Just imagine trying the same approach if you are the young local cleaning woman who has a great idea… When I lived in Ghana (even though neither old nor male) I realized after a while that calling for an appointment with local NGO and government officials went completely differently whether my local assistant or I did the calling. If I hadn’t had this reality check (that it was often impossible for him to get a hold of anyone who thought they were important) I would have easily gotten the impression that status didn’t matter much there and everyone was really approachable.

So, if you are nice to people (focus on connections) and really know what you are doing (focus on content) but still feel like you are running against walls, it might make sense to have a closer look at this status thing, even if you don’t like it. And understand that in those situations where status matters, it often is dealt with one way or the other in the initial interactions, before you can even form connections or impress with content. What are typical things people do to establish their high status? They let you wait, make you stand (or sit on the worst chair), don’t offer you something to drink in a situation where that would be expected, decide what they want to talk about and just talk. They might openly attack you, your qualifications or what you have to say, but more often than not, status games are much more subtle than that.

In my experience you often just have a few moments in the beginning of such a status game to assert your own status or accept the lower status the other person has put you in. So what can you do if you are not the naturally high status alpha animal and know that you are getting into one of these situations?

First of all: Understand what works as a status enhancer in the system you are in now. It depends a lot where you work, in terms of culture, content area, kind of organization. Some things you won’t be able to do much about, like color, age and gender. Some are longer term projects, like your academic achievements, position in the hierarchy, wealth etc. And there are some nearly instant status enhancers connected to how you dress and hold yourself, what you drive, what you know, who you know, the way you talk etc. Look at what you can bring to the table in all of these categories and what is most impressive for the status game player you are about to meet.

Yes, you might feel uncomfortable doing this and think it’s incredibly rude and somehow beneath you. But for some people assessing status before substantive interaction is a way of knowing the order of the world and their own place in it, so by indicating to them that they have to deal with you as a status equal, you are not being rude, you just speak their language.

One strategy that helps if you see that by all the assessment criteria of the other person you will never reach a status high enough to be worthy of an interaction among equals is to build coalitions and elicit the support of “status providers” whose main role it is to be impressive and important. I remember doing very frustrating interviews with high level government officials in a country that had a very hierarchical, male dominated system that also looked at age and race as status indicators. I was amazed at how easy these interviews became when a middle-aged male white colleague who works for the IMF joined us, literally just to sit there and listen.

I’m always interested in other people’s experiences and strategies in dealing with status. Have you experienced status games holding you back in your work? How do you deal with them? What strategies work or don’t work in the context you are in?