May 28, 2013 | Research Feature

It's Good to Be the King

Research suggests that status influences performance and the ability to cope with stress.


In a hierarchical office environment, who is better at handling stress: those who occupy a low rung on the ladder or those at the top? Entry-level workers might face status-induced stresses such as lack of control, fear of layoffs, and the daunting prospect of trying to earn a promotion or raise. However, managers and executives face other stresses, including time pressures, demanding jobs, and the necessity of having others depend upon them.

While some animal studies have suggested that high status confers benefits when dealing with stress, there have been few human studies that show a causal connection between status and health. Professor Modupe Akinola, working with coresearcher Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco, examined this relationship in a recent study on the psychological, physiological, and behavioral effects of having high status. “Most organizations have some sort of hierarchy,” she says. “But not much is known about the effects of these hierarchies, in terms of performance and health.”

The researchers focused the first part of their study on male police officers. First, they had officers rate their status relative to their colleagues and to other people in the United States. Then, they exposed the officers to stress. Each officer participated in a stressful role-play exercise in which the officer had to placate a disgruntled citizen, played by an actor, who claimed that another officer had verbally and physically abused him. The officers were made aware that this type of role-play exercise is used by many police departments to help decide which officers should get a promotion.

Akinola and her coresearcher measured each officer’s physiological responses to the stressful role-play, including their heart rates, the efficiency of their blood circulation, and their testosterone levels. These measures allowed them to assess whether officers exhibited a thriving or adaptive stress response during the role-play.

The findings showed a significant relationship between the officers’ perceptions of their social status and whether they exhibited a healthy, thriving stress response. “The higher the self-perceived status, the more likely they were to have an adaptive stress response,” Akinola said. “High-status officers dealt with stress much more easily.”

Next, the researchers delved further into the relationship between status and adaptive stress responses by conducting a second study using a non-officer population. In this study, they used male undergraduate participants, and rather than asking subjects about their perceptions of their status, as they did in the first study, the researchers placed the participants in either high- or low-status roles in an effort to examine the causal relationship between status and physiological responses to stress. “In an organizational environment, this is something that we do all the time. We ask individuals to work together and tell them who is going to lead the project and who will play a supporting role, but the question remains — who is more stressed in these contexts and who will perform better? The person who is told they will lead the project or the person who is supporting the project?” Akinola says. “Based on our results from the first study, we wanted to see what would happen to the performance and physiological reactivity in this context.”

In this study, participants played a complicated, fast-paced video game with a partner. The researchers measured participants’ cardiovascular responses and testosterone levels during the task. They found that those participants who were placed in the leader role exhibited more adaptive hormonal and cardiovascular reactions during this stressful task. In addition, they performed better and faster and were more generous, both in allocating resources to their partners and in having positive perceptions of them. “The finding that leaders had more favorable perceptions of their supporter partners than supporters did of their leader partners has some parallels with the 360-degree evaluations used in many organizations,” Akinola says. “When you’re the leader, you may want to say nice things about the people who support you and to decide that you want to work with them again. You may be more generous which is driven by your status position.” The researchers found that the opposite was true of the participants placed in the supporter role, who were less generous, had less adaptive responses to the stressful task, and did not perform as well on the task.

This research has significant practical implications for managers, Akinola says. “When people are told they are leaders, they want to work hard and do a good job, and this research also shows that they may perform well and thrive physiologically,” she says. “But managers should consider how they should interact with workers who must take a supporting role.” To avoid negative responses and behaviors, managers may want to indicate that lower status workers will have the opportunity to move up. “Managers could discuss how performance on a task might influence mobility,” she said. “When people know that they can move from being a supporter to a leader, they may be more likely to perform optimally.”

Modupe Akinola is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Modupe Akinola, Wendy Berry Mendes

"It's Good to Be the King: Neurobiological Benefits of Higher Social Standing"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

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