Using 'status' behaviour to your advantage

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Jan Hills of HR consultancy HR With Guts explains how to adapt your behaviour according to the business situation.

People and places are constantly affecting what we do and how we act. We speak differently depending on who we're talking to, we behave differently depending on what we're trying to achieve.

We would not, for example, speak the same way to our friends, as we do in a business meeting. Changing how we speak and what we say is a classic example – we do it so frequently it's often subconscious.

I once worked with a CEO who liked soup. Each lunchtime he flipped his tie over his shoulder to avoid the predictable tie/soup disaster.

An unremarkable story. Unremarkable, that is, until I accompanied him to his canteen one day and there they were - row upon row of sandwich-eating men with their ties flipped over their shoulders.

Clients adopt this 'status' behaviour, too. It can be used to great effect, as illustrated by an HRBP client of mine who, while working with HM Prison Service, noticed that the governor walked the prison floor regularly.

By copying the governor's approach and asking similar questions he established credibility among the prison staff. They became more willing to help him, he learned a lot more about their jobs, and the outcome was better all round.

Low status versus high status

Although the importance of adapting behaviour is well-known, it's not necessarily well-documented and used in business to give an advantage. Research by Keith Johnstone* has shed some fascinating light on 'low status' versus 'high status' behaviour in the acting world, and having adapted this research for a business context, I have used status behaviour to coach clients, with positive results.

Status is established mainly in the way we behave. If you interact in a way that says you are sure of yourself and confident, then the other person will go along with it. In turn, if you act in a way that says you don't want responsibility, you send a signal of low status.

High status behaviours are not simply the opposite of those that signal low status and there are times when both can be useful in business.

High status behaviour including moving comfortably and gracefully, keeping your hands away from your mouth and not checking the other person's eyes for a reaction when you are speaking, should be used when you are want to appear confident and with authority.

Low status behaviour is an equally important tool in certain situations. When you want people to feel more comfortable, you can move out of their way or let them pass through the door first (you are giving them status) and even something as subtle as slouching can make a nervous person relax. However, there are also times to avoid high or low status behaviour; I wouldn't, for example, recommend slouching during a presentation or formal meeting.

And at times when it is appropriate for either high or low status behaviour, you should still beware of going too far. Some ways of raising another's status won't make them feel better; they just make you look worse. What's more, these behaviours should be avoided when talking to people you see as your equal.

Good ways to raise a person's status:

  • Ask their opinion
  • Give them praise when it's due
  • Thank them when others are present
  • Agree with their analysis and ideas, and explain why they're good
  • Ask for their input and advice

Methods that you should avoid:

  • Use a title like "sir"
  • Down play your achievements
  • Do something incompetent in front of them and keep apologising
  • Back down in conflict
  • Obey unquestionably

In summary, we unconsciously adopt different status roles all the time. It can take a little time to get used to consciously doing what has been done unconsciously for so long, and it may feel a little strange and unnatural at first. But if we become more aware of these actions when with clients, it can allow us to signal a status of our choice; one that can help us achieve what we want and create the right impact with a client which will ultimately lead to better performance and more success in the workplace.

*Source: Impro by Keith Johnstone (Methuen)

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