How Powerful, Low-Status Jobs Lead to Conflict
The insufferable coworker. The abusive boss. When it comes to conflict in the workplace, we tend to think that people are the problem.
There is some truth to this idea. From differing values and backgrounds to personal insecurities, individual characteristics are often an important source of conflict. However, by focusing on individuals and their personality traits, we ignore a crucial ingredient in the conflict cocktail: one’s structural position in the organization.
Our recent research has begun to shed light on this often-overlooked source of interpersonal conflict. In a set of studies, including surveys, a field study in a large federal agency, and controlled experiments, we found that employees who occupied positions that lack respect and admiration in the eyes of others (i.e., that lack status) but who simultaneously control important resources (i.e., have considerable power) were the most likely to initiate conflict with others. Being in a role that has power but lacks status leads people to demean others.
In one experiment, for example, we randomly assigned participants to play the role of a low-status boss in a workplace simulation. When they provided written responses to a request for help, their responses were more demeaning than the responses of participants who were randomly assigned to roles with other combinations of power and status. Furthermore, our findings from a separate survey of working professionals across a wide range of industries indicate that these demeaning actions set in motion a vicious cycle of conflict with others in the organization.
This seems to suggest that the conflict could be a two-way street: not only are high-power, low-status individuals more likely than others to demean those around them, but other people might be more likely to view these individuals’ otherwise ordinary work behavior as more demeaning in the first place.
Why does the power-without-status effect occur? Well, lacking status hurts; it makes us feel bad about ourselves and makes us want to act out against others. But when we also lack power, we tend to hold our tongue because acting on our hurt feelings is too risky without the protection of power. Having power, on the other hand, is liberating, allowing us to act on our feelings. So when we are in a role that lacks status but has power, we often feel free to act on our hurt feelings. And unchecked, that can snowball into widespread organizational conflict.
Roles that fit this profile are more common than we realize. Consider a reluctant and uncooperative reimbursement clerk or an unnecessarily antagonistic TSA agent. Structurally, their roles control important resources (money and travel access, respectively) but are not viewed as particularly admirable by those with whom they regularly interact.
It’s likely that there are people who fit the low-status, high-power description at your company. And it’s also likely that your organization regularly experiences some form of interpersonal conflict. In a recent international survey, employees reported spending 2.1 hours every week managing conflict, which translates to a loss of 385 million working days in the U.S. each year. Conflict also harms the bottom line indirectly. In a large-scale, meta-analytic review of the academic literature, researchers found that conflict was negatively associated with trust, cohesion, work satisfaction, work commitment, and organizational identification, and positively associated with counterproductive work behaviors.
Instead of assuming that conflict is purely personality-driven, we suggest that leaders also understand and take into consideration the structural dynamics that can lead to workplace tension in order to minimize it. There are a few ways to do this when it comes to the low-status, high-power combination.
Control the narrative to boost status. Status is defined by social perception. As a leader, you can influence others’ perceived status by publicly recognizing the efforts of people in low-status, high-power roles. If your employees sense that you respect the role, they likely will too. The benefits of positive acknowledgement do not stop there. Employees report more loyalty to their boss and engagement with their work when their organization has a culture of acknowledgement. Additionally, high-performing teams express nearly six times as much positive feedback as negative feedback.
Consider the status implications of organizational change. Open-plan offices, hot-desking, and other initiatives to flatten organizational hierarchies may seem desirable on paper, but implementing these structural changes can cause friction in organizations. Replacing a well-known status symbol (a large private office) with a lower-status alternative (a communal workspace) can lower the status of certain roles in the eyes of others. And if these people have power, it will increase the likelihood of conflict.
Leaders should ensure that major organizational changes don’t leave powerful people stripped of their status or, alternatively, don’t place low-status people in a new state of power without a proportionate increase in status. Research has shown that powerful executives who lost status following their firm’s acquisition were less likely to leave the firm when the acquiring firm provided them with status-enhancing roles and responsibilities. In short, aligning powerful employees’ status with their level of power may help to reduce conflict and other undesirable outcomes.
What if you don’t manage people in low-status, high-power roles but you have to interact with them as colleagues regularly? First, take the other person’s perspective. Realize that the person you are interacting with may have insecurities related to their role’s lack of status. Go out of your way to show respect. They will appreciate it, and you will stand out as an ally in the future.
In addition, remember that the situation may be positional, not personal. Accept that your interaction partner’s role, not their personality or a disagreement with you, may prescribe certain behaviors that are upsetting to you and others. That TSA agent at the airport, for example, is required to confiscate your liquids. By showing respect to a person in such a role, you become a breath of fresh air and will likely achieve a much more positive outcome as a result.
And if you yourself are in a low-status, high-power role, don’t assume others respect your position in the organization just because it provides you with power. Power and status, although positively correlated, are distinct variables. Recognize that the behaviors required of you in this role may rub others the wrong way, and don’t take others’ negative perception of your role personally.
Also remember that status is fluid: unlike power, it is socially conferred. This means that you can proactively grow (or erode) your status through your actions. While upping the status associated with your low-status role will not be achieved overnight, the best way to get respect may be to be respectful yourself. For example, you can gain status by being generous and helpful on a regular basis. This isn’t always easy. But don’t be surprised if more respect and resources eventually come your way as a result.
Given the costs associated with conflict, organizations need to do all they can to understand and reduce it. Considering the structural effects of organizational roles — above and beyond the individual differences of employees — is a step in the right direction.
Eric M. Anicich is a doctoral candidate in the Management Division at Columbia Business School whose research examines the forms and functions of social hierarchy within groups.