Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Does Status Matter?

Everybody wants to be liked. Most of us want to get along with other people, to have a circle of good friends and to enjoy harmonious social relationships. We all assume that we are likeable, that anyone who gets to know us will like us. We do not really see likeability as a primary goal in maturation and development.

So, we pay serious lip service to likeability. Until the moment when its precepts begin to contradict our most cherished values.

Those who have derived their values from the therapy culture will take serious exception to the notion of likeability. Once they hear what they need to do to be likeable, their exception will flower into full-fledged rebellion.

Therapy culture values have developed over a long period of time. For those who belong to this culture they are self-evident, not subject to question or challenge. They tell you that your life will have meaning and you will be emotionally healthy when you fulfill your potential and express your creativity. You need to become independent, autonomous, and absolutely true to yourself.

What this has to do with mental health, I do not know.

When the therapy culture addresses the question of what it means to know yourself, it invariably answers that it means knowing your likes and dislikes, your tastes and distastes, your motivations and faults. Once you know yourself you are then obliged to express your true self as fully as possible.

Your goal, according to the therapy culture, is to become a unique individual who can express his uniqueness in any and all social situations.

If you live this kind of life and you are not happy, the fault cannot lie in yourself; it must lie in those who refuse to accept you, to like you, for who you are.

A culture that promotes bad behavior must insist that no one judge such behavior ill.

I believe that most people take it for granted that they should live their lives according to the values promoted by the therapy culture. They would be surprised to discover that anyone who follows them will become markedly less likeable.

If you read Tim Sanders' book, The Likeability Factor, or my post on the topic (link here), you already know that Sanders and I approach likeability from a very different angle, one that is anathema to the therapy culture.

Likeability has little to do with self-actualization, full individuation, utter autonomy, or fulfilling your creative potential. You do not become more likeable by becoming different from everyone else, or even by becoming stranger than everyone else. You become more likeable by being more sociable, by fulfilling your social being.

Worse yet, sociability involves status, the place you hold on the social status hierarchy. Sanders reports on psychological research about likeability: "The research concluded that likeable people are more aware of their social status, as well as the social implications of what they do, which helps them 'avoid faux pas that could jeopardize their popularity and group effectiveness'."

And he continues: "If you are likeable, you will find you're often the best choice [of friend or colleague] with the fewest costs. You haven't given anyone reason to believe that you will produce emotional or social problems in the future. You don't send out any warnings signals to indicate that you'll have a negative attitude, or a temper tantrum, or repeated fights."

Clearly, this requires a high degree of social conformity. Clearly, it places getting along ahead of being yourself. Clearly, it requires you to repress your personal feelings, your tendencies to dramatize, and your bad attitude.

To the therapy culture Sanders is offering a recipe for repression, misery, heart disease, and cancer.

Repressing your unique individuality in order to play a role in society, whether that role is vice president or mother, is unacceptable to the therapy culture. It is tantamount to selling your soul, selling out, deadening your creative spirit, compromising your individual initiative... and so on. You will end up like a robotic organization man, a corporate automaton... tedious, boring, and uninteresting... lacking spontaneity, energy, and vitality.

The notion that you should do what it takes to fit in is anathema to the therapy culture. Its goal is not likeability, but something quite different, and something that is borderline asocial, and barely human.

Human societies all have status hierarchies. When you are born you are a son or daughter in a status hierarchy that defines you as peer to your siblings, but as having lower status than parents and grandparents. Parents and grandparents receive more deference, and thus, more formal gestures of respect, than do siblings.

But different families enjoy greater or lesser status in the community at large. Students in some prestigious schools have higher status than students at supposedly lesser institutions. Workers at one factory have higher status than workers at another, less successful, factory. Within a corporation, a manager has higher status than an assistant, and the CEO has higher status than the vice presidents.

All of this is true, and self-evident. Given the inescapable reality of social order, the talk about autonomous, independent individuals seems more like fantasy than reality.

Of course, status is not rigid; it is fluid. Sons become fathers and fathers become grandfathers. You are always your father's son, but you will also gain status when you become a father or grandfather. Similarly, the assistant who is promoted to manager gains status. As does the substitute outfielder who becomes a starter.

Similarly, if you were brought up on the wrong side of the tracks, you still have the opportunity, in our culture, to enhance your status by achieving something exceptional. And it certainly happens that the scions of great families drag the family name in the mud, thus cause the entire family to lose status.

We all have something to say about the importance of showing respect for other people. Rarely do we recognize that status defines how we show it. In most circumstances you do not address a full professor the same way you address a teaching assistant. The academic world is build on strict status hierarchies. The people who have earned high status positions in academia, like those who rise up the corporate ladder, guard their positions zealously.

Different status defines different ways of showing respect. Lower status requires a measure of deference. Higher status requires magnanimity.

When people fail to respect status hierarchies they are said to be too familiar, and familiarity shows a lack of respect. In the home this applies when parents pretend to be friends with their children. It might also apply when one of two peers insists on being treated with a deference that is not his due.

When people refuse to respect status, they often choose to imagine that they can do everything by themselves, that they do not need advice from those older and wiser. There is sometimes a value in learning things by making one's own mistake, but once this principle becomes a general policy, it leads to functional inefficiencies. Failure to respect authority and status is simply not economical. It is a recipe for social disorganization and personal dysfunction.

It is one thing for a manager to take a sensible risk. It is quite another for him to decide that he must reinvent the wheel. It is better that the child heeds an adult's warning than learn the hard way that it is a bad idea to jump into an empty swimming pool.

How much of the drama that is so destructive to social order involves failing to respect status? How much of it represents a failure to know one's place and to act accordingly? How much does any of us like the social disharmony produced by failures to show proper respect?

In Chinese the concept of losing or saving face refers to two different kinds of face. The one is the face you have for belonging to a group. Lose it and you become a social pariah. The other is the face you have for having a certain status in the group. Lose it and you lose prestige, you become lesser in the eyes of your friends.

When these positions are threatened, community life becomes chaotic and dramatic. People who become unmoored from their positions on the status hierarchy become more emotional, more prone to outbursts, less willing to compromise and to moderate their behavior.

Social insecurity is the breeding ground for psychodrama.


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