Persuasive communication

Of Chickens, British Civil Servants and You: How to Use Status to Persuade

So, you think you’re better than me…

The human drive for status is so strong within all of us that any practical persuader ignores it at their peril.

As a kid, I grew up on a chicken farm, and got to observe first-hand what a real pecking order looks like. Whenever we got a batch of baby chicks, we would have to use a debeaking machine to cut off the sharp pointy end of their beaks, which sounds cruel but actually saved a lot of lives. Each chicken coop contained a couple thousand chickens, and they had rigidly defined status levels that only chickens recognize.   Within those orders, it’s good to be at or near the top, and miserable or potentially fatal to those near the bottom, because higher status chickens would peck at those below. By blunting their beaks we gave the bottom chickens a chance to survive and preserve our feathered investment.

If you’re a chicken, low status can kill you. People are a lot like chickens in this regard. In a study of British civil servants conducted over many years, researchers were surprised to discover a positive correlation between relative status and longevity. The higher the status at which they retired, the longer they lived and the better general overall health they reported. Low status, it seems can actually damage your health and shorten your life. The mechanism, according to Michael Marmot[i], is the greater amount of stress that low status individuals have because they have less control over their lives. People feel better and are less stressed when they have a greater sense of control.

In addition, low status hurts. According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work,

“Just speaking to someone you perceive to be of a higher status, such as your boss, can activate a strong threat response. A perceived threat to status feels like it could come with terrible consequences. The response is visceral, including a flood of cortisol to the blood and a rush of resources to the limbic system that inhibits clear thinking.”

Functional MRI studies have even shown that the psychological pain of rejection activates the area of the brain that responds to the stress of physical pain.

What does this have to do with persuasion? Unlike chickens, which seem to accept their preordained status, people actually have ambition and the free will to resent their low status and to want to do something about it. The drive for status explains the Hummers and BMWs in the parking lot of the private school which my kids attended, but it’s also what drives those kids to work like dogs to get into the top colleges. Because of this capacity for good or bad, as a persuader and a leader you want to avoid the dark side while harnessing it for good.

Avoid the dark side

Be civil. Whether you intend it that way or not, incivility on your part is interpreted as an attack on the other’s status, and the defensive reaction kicks in.  Changing people’s minds is hard enough with logical arguments; why would you make it even harder on yourself by raising their defenses?

Don’t try to use your position of relative power to intimidate. For example, as someone who has flown close to 3 million miles in my career, I’ve had plenty of occasions where flights have been cancelled and I and fellow passengers flock to the gate agent or service desk for help. I’ve learned that those who try to throw their weight around[ii] often provoke a defensive response and walk away unsatisfied. On the other hand, if you approach the agent ask for their help, you effectively acknowledge their superior status (in that particular situation) and generally get more out of the exchange.

Status is a minefield in which even good intentions can backfire, such as giving someone well-meaning advice and praise. The simple act of giving advice implies a superior relationship on your part, and can put the other person into a lower relative role. That seems to be one of the reasons that men are much more reluctant to ask for directions when lost—it puts them into a subordinate role, even if only for a brief moment with a complete stranger. Praise can backfire and be perceived as condescending  because it implies that person giving the praise is in a position to judge.

Harness the power of status

The status drive is a long lever—keeping a few simple things in mind can have a huge effect on your persuasiveness. Your most immediate payoff comes from simply listening more actively and asking better questions.

For example, the easiest way to make someone feel good about themselves is to just listen. In this attention-deficit world, listening is a gift that shows respect.  Drop what you’re doing, put down your blackberry and take an interest, and it will make a tremendous difference.

What about questions? How do you feel when someone stops and asks you for directions? Besides helping others feel good, you can make sure that others feel in control by asking questions to get them to tell you what you want them to hear, and to make it their idea to do what you want them to do.

If you manage others, the need for status puts cheap but powerful incentives at your disposal. The new Miami Hurricanes football coach, Al Golden, has assigned different colored jerseys to players based on their effort and performance during off-season workouts. Apparently the black jerseys are highly coveted and explain why the entire team has worked so hard since he took over. (I sure hope it pays off on the field next fall)

As you can see from this brief survey, one of the best ways to increase your influence is to help others feel important. There are so many other ways you can harness the power of status, but I’m sure you know them better than I do, and I’d love to get your suggestions.


[i] The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, by Michael Marmot.

[ii] “I’m a gazillion miler, Flying Colonel and friend of your CEO, plus I personally flew with Orville Wright, and it’ll be your job unless you put me into a first class seat on the next flight…”

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