“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.
- Niccolo Machiavelli.
Character Status in Business
I was an actor for about 35 years, when I left that world and joined the corporate world, I was surprised how many of the skills I learned and used as an actor transferred over to my new life. One particular tenet of acting that has come in very handy is status. As an actor, we studied the status of our characters, examined the status of people in regular life and learned the limitless uses of recognizing, understanding and becoming a status expert. This is a tool that can help you deal with multiple problems that you may face every day in the office or, even in daily life.
This is a familiar scene; you’re meeting with a client or a customer and they’re unhappy for some reason. They choose to express that unhappiness by screaming mere inches from your face and demanding all manner of free services or products and they never ever seem to be satisfied. It’s easy to allow yourself to get angry, yell back, play their game or even think, do I really need this customer? In the heat of the moment, you may think; “no, I don’t”, you dump a pot of hot oil and dumplings on his head, wish him Merry Christmas and then toss him to the street like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film. The fact that you run a printing business and have no idea where the hot oil and dumplings came from doesn’t matter right now. What matters is, you’ve handled that grumpy, unreasonable customer. Good for you, well done, you feel great. Then, the following day, regret sets in. This regret, the loss of a client and the possibility of the situation turning litigious due to mysterious oil and dumplings, can all be avoided with a little knowledge of status.
When I talk of status here I’m not speaking of just social status, this kind of status often has nothing to do with money or cars or even a royal title. We all have a certain status in any situation and that status is fluid, ever-changing and, when you understand that, you can actually change your own status and the status of others to suit the particular need in any given situation. In this piece I want to talk about basic status and how you can use it to make encounters with an angry client, an unhappy waiter or anyone else in your life, go smoother without the employment of hot oil and dumplings.
High status is usually given or bestowed on a person by job position or title, CEO, CFO or just plain boss. They have status because they can hire, fire or give you a raise. We all agree to that status and treat them with respect. Mostly because we want to keep our jobs and maybe get a raise. People who believe that they have some kind of authority have taken high status and try to hold onto that by any means possible. A screaming customer believes he has high status because he’s paying you to do what he wants and therefore, he believes he is owed something and he is hanging on to the notion of “the customer is always right”. Now, these high status folks have their status because we all agree on it. We all agree that the boss is the leader, the one with power and he needs to be treated a certain way. The customer is the one who pays us, keeps us in business and so, we agree they have high status and we treat them a certain way, we put up with their spit filled tirades and chalk it up to the way business is run. High status is a sort of unspoken agreement we all get behind. We all know high status folks.
Low status people are usually the ones in the trenches, the ones doing the grunt work or the daily grind. They may be upper management or middle management but, they don’t have the full power of the boss or the CEO so they have low status in comparison to the high status folks. Here it is important to remember that status exists in comparison to someone else. If you’re the new person in the office, you have low status compared to the rest of the office. When they hire another new person, even if it's just a week later, you have status over that person, you now have, compared to the new, new person, high status. Compared to Jake, who has the cubicle full of photos of figure skaters and has been there for ten years, you still have low status. But, to Shelly, who started a week after you did, you have high status. Low status doesn’t reflect intelligence, worth or place in life. Low status is low status in comparison to another person’s status. And, for that matter, so is high status.
Recognizing Status Shifts
When you start to understand status you see that it is in constant shift. Even the most banal situations we can see incredible status shifts. If we take an office setting where suddenly the copier fails and documents need to be copied at that very minute because everything is so very important, we can observe some serious status shifting.
Steve has been given the task by the boss to make copies of the oh so important document. He heads to the copier deflecting anyone who asks him a question because right now, he’s doing a very important job for the boss. Steve has high status and, knowing Steve, he flaunts that. He gets to the copier and it does not work, he starts to panic because Steve has no idea how to fix the copier. Suddenly the boss screams across the office, “Steve where are those documents?” Steve’s status is now in question. Suddenly, Maggie, who is often ignored because she is quiet, she is low status in the office and especially compared to Steve. She stands up, walks to the copier, hits it twice in very specific spots, presses several buttons in a seemingly random order and the machine springs to life. Everyone sees this. Her status has just gone up. She is no longer the quiet girl with a desk by the bathroom, she’s now the copier whisperer. Steve’s status dropped, Maggie's raised.
Here’s an example of status shift that I witnessed recently on a bus.
At a stop, a man that appeared to be homeless got on. He was dirty, he had a heavy beard and everyone immediately judged him. He handed the driver a transfer and there was something wrong, it was old or it expired and the driver pulled full high status and demand the guy get off HIS bus. The driver started scolding this man, saying he wasn’t going to fall for his tricks, he wasn’t going to put up with being cheated, he knew the rules and the rules were important. The bus driver was high status and using that status freely. At one point the driver gestured to the rest of us and said, “you are ruining these people’s day, you’re holding all these people up.” The driver was using his status to just pound this poor guy. Then, the man did something quite remarkable. Without raising his voice, without making a huge deal of it, he turned slightly to the rest of us and said, “Sorry folks, just an old war vet trying to get to the VA for some treatment.” Immediately the driver’s status dropped to the floor, the “homeless” guy’s status shot to the roof. It was his quiet way, it was the fact that he didn’t argue and that he was a war vet. A gentleman on the bus stood up, paid the guy’s fare and give him his seat. Major status shift. A few people, when they got off the bus, scolded the driver for being disrespectful to a vet.
In this situation, the homeless guy was able to drop the driver’s status easily. Changing him from the authority on who gets to ride the bus to the thoughtless guy who probably sat out the war while this older man fought and was wounded for our country and is now just trying to get to the hospital for some medical attention. Did the homeless guy do this on purpose? In some unconscious way, he probably did. He needed to be on that bus and so he used whatever he had at his disposal to get there. But, he must have had some understanding of status because he didn’t yell at the bus driver, which would have kept his status low, a guy who feels he can break the rules and then yell at the authority. He didn’t make a big deal out of being a vet. He didn't scream about it, condemn the driver for not going to war. He was quiet and he apologized to the bus, with sincerity and he quietly explained his situation, almost as an afterthought. He didn’t use it as an excuse, in fact, he told us his situation as he was turning to leave the bus.
As we see in the bus example, status can be controlled. You can raise or lower your own status and, you can raise or lower someone else’s status. We also see that, if you’re not aware of status, you can have your comfy, high status ripped away from you in an instant. When you understand and recognize status in any given situation, you are then able to manipulate it to a personal advantage or the advantage of others. This all keys on being able to see status and understand the status around you.
Dropping Someone’s Status
It may seem counterintuitive but, low status is actually the best status to have. When you’re low status, you really cannot be dropped, you can only go up and, it’s much easier to drop a high status person from a low status position. We see this very clearly on the bus. The man is low status because of his appearance and the driver is high status because he’s at the wheel and he has a uniform and he has claimed some authority. However, his status gets dropped. His status is dropped because he loved it, he loved being the authority, having the power but, he was up against a very difficult situation, a person who had nothing to lose. In most low status situations, the person with the low status has nowhere to fall so, they have little to lose. The driver had his authority, his pride at knowing the rules, it was “HIS” bus …. He had a lot riding on it, so he thought. In reality, it meant nothing if this man got on his bus. No one was being wounded, millions of dollars were not lost, the driver decided to make this an issue so he could flaunt his authority, so he could swing his status about.
For a low status person, dropping a high status person is easy if you pay attention and understand why they are clinging to their high status and you know what they have to lose.
Raising Someone’s Status
If you’re a high status person, you can have your status dropped or, you can raise your own status a little more by raising the status of a lower status person. I know it sounds confusing but, hang on, it’s really simple.
A very high status person walks into a room. Say he’s the Big boss of the huge corporation. He is visiting the local office and everyone is excited, nervous, whatnot. The big boss is a good boss, he listens, shakes people’s hands and makes the effort. Now, there has been a major project going on and a guy in the office, Stan, who is lower middle management, has been really busting his ass on the project, People above him have been laughing at him for putting in the long hours and some have called him a kiss ass and told him he’s not getting anything from it. Stan, he just wants to do his job well. No one, he is told, is going to care about his efforts or his contribution because the guys above him are going to take the credit, it’s the way business works.
The big boss is being shown around he’s meeting folks and everyone he meets, they say hello my name is and the boss says nice to meet you. He comes to Stan and as Stan extends his hand the big boss says: “Stan Jacobs, what a pleasure to meet you, I really appreciate all the work you’ve put in on the Swiss account.” Stan’s status goes up. After introductions, the big boss calls to Stan and asks him to join him for lunch. Stan’s status is now very high. And, the boss, whose status is already high because of his title, is suddenly a different kind of high status. He’s not just high status because he’s the boss, he is high status because he recognized the little guy, knew his name, thanked him and took him to lunch. He’s now high status because he’s a really good guy.
Know Your Status
Knowing your status in any situation is going to make navigating difficult situations much easier. Remember that being low status is not bad and you should never judge it. Also, most times, you’re not low status for long. Let’s look at the situation with the screaming customer and the mysterious hot oil and dumplings.
The guy comes into your printing shop and he is screaming at you because you printed a name wrong on his business card order. You look at the order and see that you printed exactly what he gave you to print. You are in the right, however, he really needs to vent and he needs to make you feel the full wrath of his anger. What do you do?
First, drop your status. Don't ask what do you want me to do, don’t point out the mistake and say I’m right, you're wrong, that will sound, to this high status screamer, like confrontation. Immediately accept that the mistake is yours and assure him it’s going to be rectified quickly. Also, let him know he has every right to be angry and that you are sorry for the bad quality the work. And then, listen. That’s really, really important. Once you’ve gotten him to calm down, to stop yelling, he is going to reveal a lot of things. He’s going to reveal that he had his ass reamed from someone above him for the mistake so his grabbing of high status with you is a result of that. He’s going to reveal that he’s under pressure, he’s going to give you information that will be helpful to you.
Next, keep your status low. Once he’s calm, seeing that the problem will be fixed, he may start to apologize and if you’re not a status expert, you may make a serious mistake here. He apologizes for his behavior and you say, well, yes, I don’t appreciate being yelled at and actually the mistake was yours, not mine or something like that. He’s going to sense a status shift and feel like he needs to be on the defensive. Don’t do that. Continue to stay low status. Don’t let him apologize, say you understand and he is well within his rights to be angry. Keep his status high, yours low and the conflict will dissipate.
Third, thank him for his business, apologize again and thank him for allowing you to make the situation better and offer something, small, fifty extra cards, something that really costs you nothing but offer it before he asks. It will make him feel like he really achieved something and he can go back to the office and say, I even got them to throw in this for free. He gets to be high status at work, he will certainly come back to you and all is well.
This also works if you’re a customer who has a complaint. Contrary to what you may think, yelling does not give you high status. People don’t really listen when you yell. Speak clearly, speak softly and limit your movements, that is high status. Look at Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins makes the choice to barely move at all. He is still, he stares and he allows silence. He is in control of all situations, he is high status.
So, you walk into a business, you have a complaint and you start yelling. The person in front of you sees a yelling, crazy, out of control person and they will be of no help. You have high status because you are the customer, keep that in mind. Use an even voice, a soft voice. Introduce yourself, ask them their name if they don’t have a name tag, make them a person, not just a job. This will raise their status and they will recognize this and be more open to helping. Never yell, never threaten. Make the person right in front of you the person you wanted to talk to most. By being reasonable and kind you won’t believe how far you will get.
Try this. When The exchange is done, no matter what the outcome, ask to speak to the manager. When the manager comes, right in front of the person who just helped you, praise that person. Say to the manager, I just wanted you to know that Jill here was really helpful and very patient with me and I appreciate it and, because of her, I will come back. This costs you nothing and you’ve given Jill a huge status bump because no one really goes out of there way to give a compliment. You’ve made her day, she will remember you and all is well. Going the extra step is good high status stuff.
Be a Status Expert
Once you understand the basics of status, you can easily become an expert raising or dropping your status and those around you to ease tensions, make someone’s day, stop the onslaught of the screaming client. It all starts with listening and paying close attention to the situations around you. Remember high status people can fall easily. A dude pulls up to the curb in an incredible, expensive car, he has status, sight unseen. He steps out, trips on the curb and falls down, status gone. He stands up, makes a self-deprecating joke, status returns. It changes in an instant.
You can support a high status person, thus raise your own status and not appear like a kiss ass. You can keep your high status, be the best boss in the world, just by raising the status of one of your employees now and then.
Status changes, status relationships are everywhere. You will be amazed at how quickly they change when you start to really see them. Knowing about status is a tool you can use to help your business and your personal. A little status adjustment can result in huge change. Above all, remember status is delicate and can change in an instant. Stay aware, listen, pay attention and soon, you’ll be a status expert.