Photo by Michael Dam on Unsplash

Have you ever seen someone overcome with joy when they got their very first job? I have and it is almost indescribable. And it is special when it happens to someone with a disability because for the first time they have an answer to the question, “So, what do you do?”

Have you ever noticed how often you are asked this question? In our society employment has become a big part of our identity, our self-concept, and our status. And this week I want to talk about just that, status.

Everywhere I look I see people behaving in response to “status anxiety.” I see it in young boys who join gangs. I see it everyday in our politicians. I see it in parents who scold coaches for not playing their children. I see it when people stretch to buy bigger, fancy houses. I see it in people who put solar panels on the northern side of their roof because that roof faces the street where others can see it. And, sadly, I even see it in myself occasionally.

While status anxiety is here to stay, I think it is an important human condition that effective leaders should understand because it drives the behavior of their employees, their colleagues, their competitors, and themselves.

If this topic intrigues you, I recommend Alain de Botten’s book appropriately titled Status Anxiety. Alain de Botten is a Swiss-born British Philosopher and author with very astute insights. While de Botten cleverly and clearly describes status anxiety, he rightly provides no fixes. It is a human condition that has advanced rapidly as civilization has produced more products and the disposable income to purchase them.

In this short article, I will highlight several of de Botten’s points that I think are insightful for leaders.

  1. What is status? Status comes from the Latin word statum or standing. Today it means one’s value and importance in the eyes of the world and specifically to one’s standing in a desired reference A reference group includes people we compare our own standing against to feel like we are measuring-up, or not.
  2. Status anxiety arises when we fear we are not measuring-up to our reference group. Closely related to the envy emotion, status anxiety arises because we fear the loss of status, and this fear can generate a wide-range of behaviors.
  3. Position on Ladder. Our self-conception is very dependent upon what others think of us. Therefore, where we are positioned on a “ladder” concerns us and is a very powerful motivator. The ladder can be your position at work, your position in a charitable or social organization, or simply the people you are seen with in public, especially if they are admired by others.

Adam Smith wrote, “The rich man glories in his riches because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world. The poor man on the contrary is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it places him out of sight of mankind. To feel that we are taken no notice of necessarily disappoints the most ardent desires of human nature.”

  1. Our Overarching Need is to be Loved. At the core of our pursuit of status is our need to be loved because we are “afflicted by a congenial uncertainty as to our value…and we tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves.” Author de Botten writes that our ego or self-conception is like a leaking balloon – we are in constant need of external love to keep inflated, and we are extremely susceptible to “pinpricks of neglect.”
  2. Hunger for Status can be Good. Author de Botten points out that the hunger for status has been very important to the development of the industrialized world. Hunger for status encourages achievement and helps each of us apply our talents in a mostly positive manner. He goes on to write, “But, like all appetites, it’s excesses can also kill.”
  3. Society’s Material Progress, Expectations, Envy. In the 1700s our society began to move from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial one. With this progress came increased disposable income and an expansion of products to purchase. The more products we had available, the more we paid attention to what other peers owned. What you owned, contributed to your status.

Author de Botten reminds us that as more goods are acquired by people in our reference group our expectations rise because we think we need the same things to maintain our status. And when we don’t, envy and anxiety arises.

In the 1800s American industrial expansion was admired around the world and studied by many. Alexis de Tocqueville was a French historian who wrote Democracy in America after touring around America in the 1830s. In a chapter titled Why the Americans Are Often So Restless in the Midst de Tocqueville noted he saw Americans who had much, “but their affluence did not prevent them from wanting ever more or from suffering whenever they saw that another had something they themselves didn’t.”

Status anxiety has been around for a while.

  1. Fear of Deprivation. I found it interesting that de Botten noted that while society advanced and the numbers of people with disposable income grew and widespread deprivation declined, a “fear of deprivation” also grew among those who had acquired disposable income. Thus, because we determine our status by comparing our stuff to the stuff owned by our reference group, the fear of losing our stuff also can be a source of status anxiety.
  2. Dependence on Unpredictable Work Events Increases Status Anxiety. Finally, de Botten explores how unpredictable employment events impact our status anxiety. Perhaps our position must be eliminated because external forces impacted our employer harshly or our employer made a poor decision.

Usually our positions at work are based on our talents. If our talents or skills fall behind what our employer needs, our status at work declines and perhaps our position is eliminated.

As I read de Botten’s book I gained a greater appreciation for how our pursuit of status impacts our work and how our work impacts our status – and the anxiety that flows from both.