Status and power – how do you get it?

Status and power are ‘states’ that someone can find themselves in, either something you have or don’t have. Everyone (almost everyone) wants it if they don’t have it, and everyone who has it wants to keep it. The English words ‘might makes right’ come from English, which can be translated as ‘a person with power can bend the law to his will’. Many people do anything to maintain their position of status in the eyes of others. But why is there such a need for status and power, and how do you gain it, keep it and how do you lose it? This article addresses this from a social psychological perspective.

In context

Social psychologists have been concerned with power and power relations since the beginning of the discipline. Showing power is one of the three ways of self-presentation, along with being liked and appearing competent. Self-presentation – also called impression management – is the process by which we as individuals try to control what others think of us. This often happens unconsciously, we hardly notice that we behave in order to appear in a positive light to others.

Four routes to the top

Roughly four tactics are known to us to obtain and maintain status and power (I discuss them separately here, but it goes without saying that they almost always occur in combination with each other):

  1. First, a person can display the ‘signs of status and power’. Very simple, every status and position of power has its ‘attributes’ or signs that go with it. A manager has a sharp suit, a king a crown and sceptre, a wanderer has worn-out clothes and a liquor bottle wrapped in a paper bag. In other words, every status and position of power has its signs, and by expressing those signs a person can demonstrate his position of power to others.
  2. A second route to demonstrate power is ‘spending’. It seems contradictory, but if you want to show that you are rich, you have to spend it (and therefore actually become less rich). The more you spend on expensive products (Dolce bags, villa in Wassenaar and yacht in Scheveningen) the more status and power people grant you.
  3. Third, you may associate yourself with a powerful or high-status person (or something). For example, you associate yourself with the football team that won (,We won,), but not with the losers (,They lost again…,). Knowing and being known by important people is therefore a source of status. The idea of ‘friends in high places’.
  4. Finally, you can also radiate status and power through non-verbal communication. That non-verbal communication can consist of anything, usually body language, posture, and position. Sitting back and looking around a bit bored during an important meeting indicates that a person feels ‘too important’ to actively participate, and thus the person indicates that he is powerful and has status. A person who leans forward and nods yes and amen, on the other hand, indicates that he/she has little power, on the contrary, he/she shows himself to be submissive. So with body language you can show a lot of status and power (or not).


Who does something like that? – differences between men and women

While women (on average, but exceptions are possible) are more likely to present themselves in a way that makes them more liked, men are on average more concerned with making themselves appear powerful. This is usually not a conscious process, men do not (always) think consciously, now I am going to lean back to appear more powerful, but subconsciously it seems that men show more power and women have more social bonding. For example, men (I emphasize again on average so exceptions are possible) demand greater personal space as the distance between them and others is greater than women. Men interrupt discussions more often and shout over others more often. They give more visual signs of power, such as expensive cars, gadgets (Macbook, Rolex) and pay less attention than women when they have to listen to others in conversations. Above all, they are more likely to turn to physical violence when insulted. These differences are of course only present at an average level, when we compare one woman with one man, the roles may well be reversed. These differences are only visible at an average level.

This difference is often attributed to socialization, the process of learning how to behave in society. Women must behave more femininely, and therefore show less physical violence, they can stand closer to each other and also learn to listen to each other better. A completely different explanation is often sought in the biological background of people. Biologically speaking, women and men are quite different from each other, our hormone balance, for example, is completely different. Testosterone can be identified as the guilty hormone for many physical assaults. On average, more aggressive men also appear to have higher testosterone levels. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective – the woman takes care of the children and the family/ community, while the man must show aggression when hunting wild animals and defending his group. So women must maintain social contact (listening to each other and being close to each other) while men must guard their territory (keeping physical distance, displaying power and fighting if necessary).

Today, many social psychologists believe that both socialization and biological backgrounds contribute to the differences between men and women.

Situations that call for a show of power

Displays of power must be done in moderation, and some situations call for it, while in other situations it is not socially accepted. Using a show of power and status in the wrong situation can even have adverse effects. Imagine if a manager decides to display his power while surrounded by even more important managers, his attempts will be seen as childish, pathetic, and attention-seeking, and instead of a rise in status, the manager in question may fall in the esteem of others. It is therefore important to sense when power can be displayed. Some situations are particularly suitable for this. The first situation arises when there is a loss of current resources (such as when the competition walks into the room) and the second situation is when an opportunity arises to acquire more resources (such as when there is a job opening in the Board of Directors). a company). These situations in particular call for a show of power, in order to maintain or improve your position. Most other situations are less suitable.

More about power

Some other ideas about power are described in the following articles:

  • Thomas Hobbes (philosopher) ideas about power: a 16th century philosopher who was one of the first to classify power into different categories.
  • French and Raven’s 5 forms of power: a categorization of power into 5 different types, widely used and applicable in today’s business world.
  • Power of an expert professional: power that results from someone’s competence or expertise is a particularly common form of power in today’s society.
  • Conflict styles: not directly about power, but related to it are ways in which people handle or avoid conflict. A person’s power determines (among other factors) how someone enters into a conflict and tries to resolve it.

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