In any group, some people emerge as the leaders. Those leaders have high status within the group, because others end up following what they decide. Movies and TV shows about groups often suggest that within any group that has the power to accomplish things, there are a number of status seekers that hope to take over the leadership role. If you watch a show about Elizabethan England, Renaissance Italy, or modern-day Washington, DC, you might end up thinking that all anybody cares about is achieving some degree of status.
Yet when you look at the groups around you, most of them are fairly stable. Your local PTA has some people who rise up to run the show, while others are content to get the occasional assignment to help with a classroom or to participate in an activity to beautify the school. If you are a member of the PTA, you might not want to run things, though you probably want to be respected for the effort you put in. That is, the PTA probably doesn’t operate like the Queen’s court.
An interesting paper in the May, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Cameron Anderson, Robb Willer, Gavin Kilduff, and Courtney Brown explored respect and status within groups.
Their work suggests that everyone wants to be respected by the people around them, but people tend to seek a high rank within a group only when they are confident that they have something to contribute to that group. They reported the results of an on-line survey of the groups people belong to. In general, people were most likely to prefer being in the top ranks of a group primarily when they felt that they had a lot to offer the group. They were content to take a smaller and lower-status role when they felt that other people had more to offer. Regardless of their desire for status, though, everyone wanted to feel like their contributions were respected.
Based on this result alone, though, it is possible that the status people have in a group influences their sense of how much value they can provide rather than the other way around.
To disentangle these factors, the researchers also report three studies that manipulate people’s perception of the value they can provide. For example, in one study, participants did a simple vision test in which they were briefly shown grids of black and white squares and had to estimate the proportion of black squares in each grid. They were told that this pre-test would be a good predictor of how well they were going to do in a group task that was going to be done next.
After doing this estimation task, people were told that they got 12 answers correct. Half the people were told that the three people they were going to work with did worse than they did. So, these people thought they had high ability. The other half of the participants were told that the three people they were going to work with did better than they did. These people thought that they had low ability.
Before continuing, people were asked a number of other questions including questions about whether they wanted a leadership role in the group task and whether they wanted their work with the group to be respected by others.
Consistent with the survey, people who felt they had high ability were more likely to want a leadership role in the group than people who felt they had low ability. Everyone wanted the same level of respect for their efforts from others, though. Other studies in this series found that this relationship between the belief about ability and the desire for status was not influenced by factors like self-esteem or general beliefs that the world is a fair place.
This result is important, because it helps us to understand why groups often function effectively. In every group, people need to take on a role that fits with the contribution that they can make to the group. Those people with the most ability should strive to lead. Other group members should be willing to defer to the group leaders. When the group works effectively, though, everyone is respected for helping the group to succeed.
Groups start to break down when these relationships fall apart. When someone seeks to lead without having the ability to contribute effectively, then the people working under them get frustrated quickly. That is when tension emerges over who should have high-status positions. Similarly, when people in low-status positions begin to feel like their contributions are not being respected, their attachment to the group weakens.
Although status and respect are not the same, both are vital for the healthy function of groups.