A gold throne with a blue foot pillow
A gold throne with a blue foot pillow

Unlocking Success: The Power of Status in Business

Paul Kiernan

If you think that status is about titles, the kind of car you drive, or the name on your office door, you’re missing vital chunks of what status is and the potential it holds.

If you think that status is about titles, the kind of car you drive, or the name on your office door, you’re missing vital chunks of what status is and the potential it holds. With a better understanding of status: your personal status, perceived status, and the status of those around you, you can navigate most roads in your life. You can improve personal relationships, work relationships, and even casual relationships with vendors, retail workers and total strangers getting on and off the bus. A guy who has a customed pair of Dunks can still be a complete yutz. Too often, we give people status because of their appearance or job title and never look any deeper. That’s a mistake.

If you listen, pay attention, and understand the incredible power of status, you can learn a lot. Let’s dive in.

The Basics

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 seem 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. What matters is how 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 bit of 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, cars, or even a royal title. We all have a certain status in any situation, and that status is fluid and ever-changing; 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 smoother without employing hot oil and dumplings.

High Status

High status is usually given or bestowed on a person by position, 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 they have some 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 thinks he is owed something, and he is hanging on to the notion that “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 with power and needs to be treated a certain way. The customer is the one who pays us and keeps us in business, 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

Low-status people are usually the ones in the trenches 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 compared to the high-status folks. Here, it is essential to remember that status exists compared 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 high status compared to the latest, new person. You still have low status compared to Jake, who has a cubicle full of photos of figure skaters and has been there for ten years. 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.

Time lapse view of the stars

Recognizing Status Shifts

When you start to understand status, you see that it is constantly shifting. Even the banalest situations can produce incredible status shifts. Let's take an office setting where suddenly the copier fails, and documents must be copied at that very minute because everything is so important. We can observe some serious status shifting.

The boss has tasked Steve with making copies of the oh-so-important document. He heads to the copier, deflecting anyone asking him a question because 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, has a low status in the office, 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, and Maggie's raised.

Here’s an example of a status shift I witnessed recently on a bus.

At a stop, a man who 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; there was something wrong; it was old or expired, and the driver pulled full high status and demanded 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 necessary. The bus driver was high status and used 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 just to 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, and 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 gave him his seat. Major status shift. When they got off the bus, a few people scolded the driver for disrespecting 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, so he used whatever he had to get there. But, he must have understood 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 scream at the authority. He didn’t make a big deal out of being a vet. He didn't yell about it or condemn the driver for not going to war. He was quiet, apologized to the bus with sincerity, and quietly explained his situation, almost as an afterthought. He didn’t use it as an excuse; he told us about his situation when he turned to leave the bus.

Controlling Status

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 unaware of your status, you can have your comfy, high status ripped away from you instantly. When you understand and recognize status in any given situation, you can manipulate it to personal advantage or the advantage of others. These are 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. When you’re low status, you 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, has a uniform, and has claimed some authority. However, his status gets dropped. His status is dropped because he loved it; he loved being the authority and having the power, but he was up against a challenging 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 and his pride in 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, and millions of dollars were not lost; the driver decided to make this an issue so he could flaunt his authority and swing his status about.

For a low-status person, dropping a high-status person is easy if you pay attention, understand why they are clinging to their high status, and 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 a huge corporation. He is visiting the local office, and everyone is excited, nervous, whatnot. The big boss is good; he listens, shakes people’s hands, and makes an effort. Now, there is a significant project going on, and a guy in the office, Stan, who is in 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, will care about his efforts or contribution because the guys above him will take the credit; it’s the way business works. The big boss is shown around. He’s meeting folks, and everyone he meets says hello. My name is, and the boss says it's 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.

A Superman action figure

Know Your Status

Knowing your status in any situation will 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 screams 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 of the work. And then, listen. That’s really, really important. Once you’ve gotten him to calm down and stop yelling, he will reveal many things. He’s going to reveal that he had his ass reamed by 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 grave 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 will sense a status shift and feel he needs to be defensive. Don’t do that. Continue to stay low status. Don’t let him apologize; say you understand and that he is within his rights to be angry. Keep his status high and yours low, and the conflict will dissipate.

Third, thank him for his business, apologize again, and allow yourself to improve the situation. Offer something small, fifty extra cards that cost you nothing, but offer it before he asks. It will make him feel like he 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 and will 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 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 chooses 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, and 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 want to talk to most. You won’t believe how far you will get by being reasonable and kind.

Try this. When the exchange is done, ask to speak to the manager no matter what the outcome. When the manager comes right in front of the person who just helped you, praise that person. Tell the manager that Jill here was really helpful and very patient with me, and I appreciate it. Because of her, I will come back. This costs you nothing, and you’ve given Jill a huge status bump because no one goes out of their 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, and 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, his 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 raising your own status and not appearing like a kiss-ass. You can keep your high status and be the best boss in the world just by raising the status of one of your employees now and then.

Status changes and 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 life. A little status adjustment can result in a huge change. Above all, remember that status is delicate and can change in an instant. Stay aware, listen, and pay attention, and soon, you’ll be a status expert.