52. Status Snakes & Ladders

1 October 2023
How can I increase or decrease people’s status?

Key Definitions

A person’s or organization’s status is their standing compared to others – it is how they are ranked in the eyes of the people around them. As this relative standing is based on perceptions and reputation, status is not static, but changes over time and can be influenced.

Status can be derived from four key sources: From being seen as successful at a particular endeavor (achievement status), from being seen as morally good (virtue status), from being seen as member of a desirable group (affiliation status) and from being seen as powerful (power status). These are described in more detail in model 46 (Ambition Radar Screen).

Conceptual Model

The Status Snakes & Ladders framework outlines the six key factors influencing whether people and organizations gain or lose status. The name of the framework is a reference to the old board game Snakes and Ladders, in which participants can slide down away from the finish line or can take a shortcut up towards the finish by climbing a ladder. The framework’s key message is that the same up and down dynamic is true when it comes to status. However, in the board game everything depends on a roll of the dice, while in the status game there are six levers that can consciously be pulled to accelerate someone up or down. All six levers can be used by the people or organizations themselves, but also by those around them.


Key Elements

The six levers for increasing or decreasing someone’s status are the following:

  1. Higher status is awarded to people who behave according to social expectations – consistent with the unwritten rules that are part of the culture. For example, a successful person shouldn’t gloat, a morally good person shouldn’t be condescending, an in-crowd person should wear the right clothing and a powerful person should help the powerless. Conforming to these implicit social norms is key to achieving higher social status.
  2. But behaving ‘correctly’ is not enough – a person also needs to deliver. Real successes need to be achieved, morally good deeds need to be done, tangible membership of the in-group needs to be exhibited and/or the public wielding of power needs to be on display. People will be looking for concrete proof that a person can perform according to their standing. Doubt about their future ability to deliver can be detrimental.
  3. As it is often difficult to see whether a person is performing and conforming to the social rules, people will look to what others are saying – they will listen to the gossip and scan the media to get a sense of someone’s standing in the eyes of others. This presents the opportunity to promote yourself or others, highlighting performance and spinning it in the most beneficial way, or alternatively, making someone else look bad.
  4. Symbols. People not only take their cues from the media but are also sensitive to symbols that reinforce a certain image. A private plane signals success, a self-help book implies moral goodness, a title suggests membership of a select group, and your name on a skyscraper shouts that you are powerful. This presents the opportunity to give people symbols (or withhold them) such as a fancy title, a company car and/or a corner office.
  5. Association. Another type of status cue is how a person is treated by people of a higher rank. If it is made clear that a person is accepted as a peer by people of higher standing, this is a quick ladder up. Conversely, if people on a higher rung kick someone down, showing by their behavior that they don’t embrace that person as an equal, that person will inevitably slide down the snake to a lower status. Who you associate with is everything.
  6. Recognition. Besides acceptance by peers, it is crucial to be acknowledged and respected by all others, especially by people of higher status. Being invited to visit the president, being asked to comment by a national TV network, being given an award, and being promoted to a new role are all examples of receiving recognition. This presents the opportunity for anyone to give, or withhold, public acknowledgements.

Key Insights

  • Status is a social construct. A person’s status is their social standing compared to others in the eyes of those around them. In other words, it is the perception that others have about a person’s rank in society. There is no objective measure, only a widely held impression.
  • Status can go up or down. A person’s status is not static, but can increase or decrease, sometimes relatively quickly. The change can be due to circumstances but can also be purposely influenced by people themselves or by those around them.
  • Status depends on six levers. A person’s status is shaped by how others view his/her conformance to social norms (rules), attainment of results (performance), coverage in the media (publicity), showcasing of signals (symbols), acceptance by peers (association) and acknowledgement by higher ranked individuals (recognition). Each of these factors can positively or negatively influence status but will typically reinforce each other.
  • Status can be influence by yourself. In the status game, each individual can use these six levers to climb the ladder to a higher standing. Being conscious and taking ownership are crucial but note that too much self-promotion breaks a social rule.
  • Status can be influenced by others. Being helped by others to move up the ladder is a good tactic. Therefore, leaders need to consider how they can use all six levers to strengthen the standing of the people around them (while indirectly profiting themselves).
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June 2024
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