Breaking Free – July 2014 – Status Syndrome



As you may know because I occasionally mention it in my presentations, it has always been a dream of mine to get onto ESPN. Well, the time has come for the dream to come true. I have the honor of being selected to umpire in the Little League Southwest Regional in Waco, TX. LLBWS Logo

You should be able to see me on ESPN2 on August 5-6 (Longhorn Network on Aug 1-4). Check the LL website for more information. I’ll also be sending out a short email with specific times when I know them so that you can point to the TV and say “I know her.” (I always love when I can do that.)

The Status Syndrome

I don’t know if you’ve ever had this happen to you but it happens to me on occasion.

I’m having a discussion with someone which, from my perspective, appears to be a normal, every day conversation. I share my thoughts. He or she shares his or her perspectives. Then, all of a sudden, we’re in an argument and I have no idea how it happened.

I’ve had discussions with a person who responds this way and remember coming away from the conversations feeling stupid, confused, disrespected, stunned, angry, frustrated and/or devalued.

In this scenario, what is happening? I never intended to get into an argument. Quite the opposite, I was trying to have a discussion, to foster alignment, and add value. I never intended to feel dejected or devalued; I never intended to offend anyone; I was trying to move things forward. I was trying to help everyone involved achieve the success we were looking to achieve. So what happened?


Well, I was reading an article by David Rock, founder of the Neuro Leadership Institute, on a brain-based model for collaborating with others and came across his five domains of social experience and the social neuroscience of each. These five domains activate either the primary reward or primary threat circuitry of the brain. Labeling and understanding these domains and drivers draws conscious awareness to otherwise non-conscious processes and may help us deal with the people we try to collaborate with above. We’ll talk about one of those domains today.

Now before your eyes glaze over, stick with me. You’ve heard me discuss the amygdala hijack in the past. The amygdala is that prehistoric part of your brain that causes your fight, flight, or freeze reaction when it recognizes a threat. The amygdala also plays a central role in remembering whether something should be approached or avoided. This part of your limbic system processes the stimuli before the perception ever reaches your conscious awareness. So, when the amygdala is triggered the approach-avoid response drives your attention on a fundamental, unconscious level.

The Power of Status

Now one of the domains that David Rock discusses is called “status” and he references a book written by Michael Marmot entitled “The Status Syndrome.” In primate studies conducted in 2002, researchers found that for some primates status equals survival. How? Higher status monkeys have lower baseline cortisol levels, live longer, and are healthier. (Now, I’m not calling person referenced above a monkey, ok? Don’t get the wrong idea here.)

Status is about relative importance, seniority, and ‘pecking order.’ It’s about how important you are in the eyes of others and the status you have in relation to others. Some research shows that as one’s sense of status goes up, there is an increase in dopamine levels. This causes you (your brain) to want more of what just occurred. An increase in status is similar in the brain to winning a race, winning the lottery, or yes, even (how shall I put this so the spam filters don’t get it) having “special” relations. Those things can be pretty powerful, maybe even addicting. And, status falls into that category.

The opposite is also true. The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response. There are three basic things that happened during the threat response.

  1. Resources available for overall executive functions in the prefrontal cortex decrease. In layman’s terms, you get “stupider.”
  2. When threatened, the increased activation in the brain inhibits people from perceiving the more subtle signals required for solving problems and having insights.
  3. With the amygdala activated, there is a tendency to generalize more which increases the likelihood of accidental connections, shrinking the number of opportunities perceived.

When the threat or avoid response is triggered, people will want to defend themselves from the perceived danger. In social situations, they will be fearful and respond with the fight, flight, or freeze response. Remember now, this is not from an actual threat but from a perceived one caused by a reduction in their perceived status.

So someone who believes you are criticising their status (competency, intelligence, social hierarchy, etc.) will generalize what you said and that is where the conversation usually goes off on an unrecognizable tangent. You will hear yourself say, “I was just trying to explain it. It wasn’t an excuse. I wasn’t placing blame. I was describing the situation as I observed it.” Then they will tell you that it’s not your job to tell them what to do… that you don’t know everything… that they’ve had many more years of experience and you don’t know as much as them… that this conversation is over!!

[Note: You may also recognize this in folks who are: empire builders or information-hoarders, or people who puff themselves up while putting others down, or someone gets angry and diverts the discussion to something irrelevant and tangential. These actions can all be the responses they learned to the feeling of being “threatened.”]

Turning Avoid into Approach

David Rock says,It can be surprisingly easy to accidentally threaten someone’s sense of status. A status threat can occur through giving advice or instructions, or simply suggesting someone might try things a different way to be more effective. Many everyday conversations devolve into arguments driven by a status threat, a desire to not be perceived as less than another. He goes on to say,When threatened, people may defend a position that doesn’t make sense to avoid the perceived pain of a drop in status. In short, the question “can I offer you some feedback” generates a similar response to hearing footsteps behind you at night.

In order to turn the threat or avoidance response into an approach or reward response people need to feel an increase in their status. What does that look like? We all know that status can go up when people are given positive feedback, especially public acknowledgment. Status will also go up when people are given a promotion or title or even a raise. However, status can also be increased when they feel they are learning and improving and when attention is paid to this improvement.

Leaders can be afraid of praising their people for fear of the request for promotion. However David Rock says, Given the deeply rewarding nature of status, getting positive feedback may reduce the need for constant promotions, not increase it. Status can be increased without cost to others or an effect on relatedness. Fostering an environment where you compete against yourself is a great way to increase status. Learn to grow personally by focusing on being better tomorrow than you were today. Leaders have the ability to change what is important, to change the focus of their team. For example, a leader can decide that the quality of one’s work is more important than the quantity of one’s work.

Leaders Control the Focus of the “Community”

Here are a few tips to remember:

  • In the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response. Successful leaders must focus on creating a safe environment (one that minimizes actions and behaviors that could be perceived as threats… while realizing you can’t know everyone’s perception and prepare for it.)
  • Status is about relative importance to others. “Others” doesn’t have to mean the typical other people definition. “Others” can be perceived as the person one is today compared to the person one will be tomorrow.
  • Remember, the responses of the empire-builder, the puffer-upper, the idea-stealer, and my original reference to the argument-out-of-nowhere person from above come from the habits and neural networks within their brains. Awareness of when their threat center has been triggered gives leaders the ability to trigger the reward center and minimize the damage.

Being and Doing

Here are key points for you:

  • Focus your team members on BECOMING better people so that they can DO better in their roles.
  • Focus on growth characteristics that your team has under their complete control like determination, hard work, dedication, effort, and attitude.
  • Remember to value them as a HUMAN BEING first, HUMAN DOING second and you will see a dramatic increase in their productivity, engagement, and commitment.

Additionally, be aware of your own status syndrome. Become mindful of when you’re feeling threatened by a perceived drop in your status. Are there certain people that make you feel stupid or less than? Know, understand and believe that you are intrinsically, infinitely valuable as a human being and that particular status can never, ever be lowered.

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