Article: Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Losing social status among colleagues has a bigger emotional impact than losing power, and can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety and social exclusion. People who lose status also intend to leave the company more often than those who ‘just’ lose power. These are the results of a study by PhD candidate Maartje Schouten of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). She will defend her thesis on Thursday 2 June 2016.

All organisations have hierarchical structures, Schouten says. One such hierarchy originates in power differences between people. Having more power means having more access to valued resources, like being able to determine salaries or influencing what other people do.

Organisations typically also have social hierarchies based on status that can be acquired by working hard, and showing knowledge and expertise. If power comes from someone’s control over resources, then status is the grand total of how one is perceived and valued by others. People can fall and rise in both power and status. In her research, PhD candidate Maartje Schouten set out to find out if – and how – losing status would affect people differently than losing power.

Anxiety and shame

Schouten conducted two scenario studies on almost 250 people. The participants were first assigned either status or power, which was then taken away from them. The results showed that losing status led to feelings of anxiety and shame more often than losing power. Because status is based on others’ judgement, losing it feels similar to being socially excluded, Schouten notes. But the feeling of power does not live in others’ perceptions as much as status does. Power is typically determined by the function that someone has been assigned. That explains why losing it does not have the same emotional impact on people, the researcher says.

Intention to leave

In her studies Schouten also found that people who lose status want to leave the company more often than people who lose power. The reason for this is that they become more focused on themselves and less on the organisation after losing status. Add this to the negative emotions the participants said they experienced after losing status – especially shame – and it becomes obvious why they would feel more inclined to leave the organisation, Schouten says.

Self-inflicted is worse

The results of her study also indicated that the reason for losing status played a big role in the intention to leave. Participants who were told that ‘the situation’ was the reason for being less valued by their colleagues did not seem to suffer as much as those who were told that losing status ‘was their own fault’. Companies should be aware that losing status might also mean losing the employee, because social exclusion feels like a heavy psychological blow that most people find too hard to cope with, Schouten concludes.

Dr M.E. (Maartje E.) Schouten
Assistant Professor
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Maartje E. Schouten
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