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High Status, Low Status: What Difference Does it Make?

By on February 22, 2011 – 11:30 am  4 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

What difference does status make in the way we work together? How does it affect performance? Is there anything we can do about it, or are status differences just part of what it means to be human?

Status in School

Cooperative school project

Cooperative school project

Back when my children were in elementary school, group projects were common. Like many of my friends, I often felt that my kids ended up doing most of the work and that some of their teammates were free-loading.

In the late 1990s when I was introduced to the work of Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan, education professors at Stanford, my point of view changed dramatically. I started to see that high-status children may do more of the work because they have low expectations of their low status peers. In the process, high-status students may be closing low-status students out of the opportunity to participate and learn. According to Cohen and Lotan, “Those who talk more, learn more.”

What I found particularly exciting about their work was that there are things teachers can do to neutralize some of the status differences. They have found that these interventions tend to increase participation of low-status students without decreasing the participation of high-status students. Here are two interventions that they have tested.

  • Watching for instances of expertise in low-status children and making specific, favorable, and public evaluations that are witnessed by high-status students. The teacher, being a high-status member of the group, has significant influence, but the performance must be impressive and real so that the group finds the evaluation believable.

    Cohen and Lotan tell a story of a teacher observing that one low-status child was getting all the right answers on a worksheet about decimals, while other students were struggling. She complimented him on his mastery and asked him to explain what he was doing to the rest of the group. Subsequently, other students started thinking of him as a smart one. The point was that sometimes a single recognition of expertise can make a big difference.

  • Assigning group tasks that require a broad range of abilities. The goal is to create tasks where every member of a group has at least one of the required abilities, and no single person has all of them.

Work team

Work team

What About Status in the Workplace?.
The problem addressed by Cohen and Lotan is not how to treat all children as if they had the same abilities, but instead how to make the discovery of who has what abilities more accurate, less distorted by status distinctions.

The same problem exists in work teams. Stuart Bunderson at Washington University has studied how groups determine who has what kind of expertise. Groups tend to perform better when people identify the location of different kinds of expertise accurately.

Studies show that people are not always good at identifying the most expert members in a particular area, often assuming incorrectly that the most dominant and assertive members are most expert. In other words, status perceptions impact the expectations that people have of themselves and others.

Stuart Bunderson

Stuart Bunderson

Stuart Bunderson performed his research with a large number of production teams in a large IT company. He looked at a number of factors including

  • The types of status cues that correlate to people’s ideas of expertise, either specific cues directly related to the task at hand, such as prior experience, or diffuse cues, general information about the person such as race and gender (and, I imagine, the tendency to speak assertively and who has the corner office). These two kinds of cues are identified in Status Characteristics Theory.
  • Whether the team had been together for a short or long time.
  • Whether decision-making in the team was centralized or decentralized. In the centralized case, decision-making is performed by one person (at most a small number of people) often because decision-makers hoard power. In the decentralized case, team members have roughly equivalent influence on the decisions that are made.

In brief, he found that teams that were short-term and centralized tended to rely more on diffuse status cues, while long-term and decentralized teams relied more on specific status cues. Time clearly gives people a chance to learn more clearly where expertise lies, and people in decentralized teams put more effort into locating expertise because they have more say in how it will be used.

So What? Extrapolations

In the course of my career as a software engineer, I’ve had numerous experiences as both a low-status member of a group and as a high-status member. Same person, presumably the same expertise, different results.

When I was a low-status member, my participation was minimal. I mentally rehearsed what I was going to say until often the opportunity to say it had gone by. I didn’t expect people to care what I thought. I often sat through meetings in a state of profound misery, wondering whether I was earning my paycheck.

Corner office

Corner office

When I was a high-status member of a group, I spoke easily and often. What I said was taken seriously, sometimes almost too seriously. I’ve seen very high-status people make off-the-cuff remarks that they promptly forgot, even though other people saw them as firm instructions.

High-status members of a work group might find that they get greater participation from all members if they use versions of the status interventions described by Cohen and Lotan or were aware of the findings of Bunderson.

  • They could pay attention to signs of expertise in low-status members and recognize them publicly and specifically. Their high status makes other people take their comments seriously, but they would thus make others more aware of where expertise lies. This is very related to the strengths-spotting described by Alex Linley.
  • They could also raise awareness of the range of different abilities required to get the job done, even pointing out the talents that they themselves don’t possess that are provided by other members with lower status.
  • They could be aware of the value of decentralized decision-making, how it correlates with both greater commitment to the work and improved awareness of where different kinds of expertise appear in the group.

I can picture myself back in my low status days. Perhaps if someone had asked me for my thoughts and then waited for me to speak, I might have felt more able to participate and the company would have gotten more benefit from my particular expertise.




Bunderson, S. (2003). Recognizing and Utilizing Expertise in Work Groups; A Status Characteristics Perspective. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48, 557-591.

Cohen, E. & Lotan, R. (1995). Producing Equal-Status Interaction in the Heterogeneous Classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 99-120.

Cohen, E.G. (1998). Making cooperative learning equitable. Educational Leadership, 56, 18-21.

Gilles, R., Ashman, A., & Terwel, J. (2010). The Teacher’s Role in Implementing Cooperative Learning in the Classroom (Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Series). Springer.

Bibilography of articles at Stanford Education

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Thye, S. R., Willer, D., and Marcovsky, B. (2006). From Status to Power: New Models at the Intersection of Two Theories. Social Forces, 84 (3), 1471-1495. I didn’t have space to describe this article, but it does include a good overview of Status Characteristics Theory, and it explores the link between status and power, a topic I may come back to.

Cooperative Project courtesy of Dylan Otto Krider
Work Team courtesy of Giorgio Montersino
Corner Office courtesy of Andrew Magill


  • Lisa Sansom says:

    Great article Kathryn – makes me wonder: are there ways to accelerate a team’s development so that they can learn specific cues faster? For example, when I work with a team, there are a series of exercises that I take them through so they learn each other’s strengths, skills and successes. Maybe this would help minimize the status cues (who talks more and louder) and introduce more specific awareness of expertise?
    All the best!

  • Lisa,
    Indeed, I think there are lots of things that could be done during team building to make people more aware of who has what expertise, to reduce status differences so that more people speak up, and to decentralize decision making so that everybody feels accountable for the outcome.

    I’m reading Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto, right now. He talks about using checklists to help teams of people be more reliable, for example, checklists that surgical teams use to make sure they’ve done all the right steps before starting surgery. Some of the steps in his checklists are there to increase communication among team members so everybody knows what’s going — and anybody can speak up about an issue that might affect the surgical outcome. In fact, he’s found that having people on the team take a moment to introduce themselves to each other makes a big difference: “I’m Joe Smith, the consulting surgeon.” “I’m Jane Smiley, the anesthesiologist.” “I’m Jon Jones, the scrub nurse.” I think perhaps everybody taking time to share name and role has a status-leveling effect.


    PS I love the way Gawande writes. See also my review of his book, Better.

  • Eduardo Gómez says:

    I want develop a web page in spanish for grow up people strengths and skills. What do you recommend to me for about ciber exercicies to develop on line?

    Thanks, my e-mail:

  • Ralph Case says:

    Thanks, Kathryn.

    Reflecting on this article, I think that one characteristic of effective people I have worked with is this ability to recognize expertise in the team. They don’t just seek an answer to the immediate question. They think about who has relevant expertise, and then bring it to the front so that everyone can see it.

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