Our status in society or an organisation is not who we are. Our status is not a hat we wear. Status is woven into social networks. Status is a tool we use in life.
When I became an independent consultant four years ago, the biggest adjustment was the change in how others treated me. I had been a senior bank executive with a CEO title. I didn’t change overnight but my status clearly did. Many of my social connections struggled to place what I did and how I fitted in to the social order of relationships. What surprised me the most was the assumption that my new role as a consultant couldn’t have been my choice, because it was too great a fall in status.
Acquiring New Status
Four years later, I have just added to my portfolio a new senior management role at Lantern Pay. Joining a new organisation and starting work with a new team is always a challenge and a learning experience. In a start-up that learning experience is always accelerated by the challenge, the adaptive environment and the pace of business. I’ve learned much in a few weeks, but one learning is unique. I’ve discovered I have a new social status and I feel like I have a new relationship with that status.
With my new job, I am an employee again which fits me into a known quantity, even if I retain a part-time consulting practice. I am a senior manager in the new company. The organisational purpose and ambitions are clear. Suddenly people are affording me a new status. People have congratulated profusely on the new status in a way that doesn’t seem to fit with the change in circumstances. They are happy I am ‘back where I should be’. I was advising and working with senior executives before and I am still doing the same. However, because an employee role fits with a standard hierarchical social expectation, I’ve got a new status. Because that role is a leadership role, I am afforded a more elevated social position in their eyes. My uncertain state has been clarified and I am better off in their view.
I haven’t changed. The level or complexity of work I am doing hasn’t changed. In a sense my life is a little easier because I have a consistent source of challenging work and some key work relationships that continue. My rising status is because the perspectives of the community around my work.
This experience makes it abundantly clear what status is. We often think our status is tied to who we are. It isn’t. We might even think of status as a hat that we wear because of a role or what we do. It isn’t. The hat doesn’t come from the role. It comes from the views of others in our networks. You can have the status without the role and vice versa. Status is a change in our influence with others. Status is a Tool.
Status as a Tool
Recognising that status is given by others and exists only in those relationships is important. Not everyone grants that status or cares about who am I or where I work. The joke of people saying “Don’t you know who I am?” reflects the fact that many people might have status in some contexts, but not all. There is no such thing as a universal status. We are granted status by specific others and can uses it only in certain relationships.
Seeing status as something that depends on the other person and that we use only in specific relationships helps us put status at a distance. We have to accept that this kind of status is ever shifting, depending on a two-way flow of influence in those relationships, like Jon Husband’s concept of the workings of a wirearchy. The status does not have a permanent state. It is something we discover and change as we use it for influence, authority, respect and trust. Importantly, this interdependence highlights the mutuality of our status. If we disrespect or abuse it, it will be lost. Very few leaders survive a mutiny.
Growing comfortable with status as something that sits not with us but in the relationships we hold is also a great relief. We are no longer so beholden to the fears of a universal loss or change of status. Changes are more gradual, more partial and more to do with how we act in those relationships. We have the ability to retain status through those relationships, even when our jobs or our work changes. Most importantly, this insight means we are clear that we are not our status. Changes in status don’t impact who we are or our ability to act. Status is a tool we use in our relationships with the support of others.
Seeing status as something at arms’ length from us and something that exists only in the network web of relationships is an enabler of new freedom of action. New relationships offer new potential for action. Building relationships can develop new status. It shows us how we can help others to build their status, because status is not innate and immutable. Most importantly of all we face fewer personal risks of change and more willingness to see that status comes from action in relationships, not inherent right. If status is a tool, it is one we must use in mutual interest or we lose it.