People who accurately perceive social hierarchies are also typically high performers, in part because of their high-status connections. 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Social climbers get on people's nerves by constantly vying to be close to whoever is in charge. No wonder disparaging names for them abound: opportunists, social climbers, clout chasers. To those around them, the climbers' motives are transparent and their undignified antics laughable – until they succeed.

In a recent paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu and Gavin Kilduff of the NYU Stern School of Business looked closely at social climbers' habits and their outcomes. The researchers concluded that these industrious networkers get a (partially) bad rap. In fact, the rest of us could learn from them.

To conduct their research, Yu and Kilduff launched four separate studies with a total of 1,334 people in university and corporate settings in China and the United States. Participants were asked to identify individuals in their study or workgroups who were especially "respected, admired or influential." The respondents whose choices were also deemed high-status by the rest of the group were labeled accurate perceivers of "perceived status hierarchy" (PSH). The respondents whose choices were deemed low-status by the others were labeled inaccurate perceivers of PSH.

The researchers then asked participants whom they sought out for advice and assistance. Those who previously tested accurately for PSH, they found, had more high-status contacts than those who tested poorly.

PSH accuracy was also found to be positively associated with performance, the researchers wrote. There's a logic to this. People with an accurate understanding of PSH are more likely to seek out high-status members in their social or professional group for mentorship and advice. They may also model the high-status colleagues' behavior. Through these connections, they're able to learn habits and strategies. Their alliances with high-status individuals have the power to improve their performance, gleaned from the individuals' best practices, knowledge and skillsets.

People who are less accurate status perceivers, the researchers said, typically build rapport with individuals who are lower on the totem pole. Through these lower-status members, they may learn inefficient and detrimental work habits, limiting their chances for success. To rise in any competitive hierarchy, it is imperative to identify, align and imitate high-status individuals.

But who exactly are these coveted high-status allies – and what makes them so valuable to others? Our species evolved to seek proximity and prolonged interaction with high performers, Yu and Kilduff noted. Within homogeneous units, prestigious individuals are typically more competent than lower-status group members. High-status individuals are often generous and group-motivated, so lower-status members benefit from their superior prowess.

Important as status associations are, the researchers argued, opportunities to interact with high-status individuals are involuntarily limited for people in marginalized groups. No matter how accurate a worker's PSH discernment may be, systemic forces may keep her from ever speaking – or being listened to – by someone with a high enough status to guide or advocate for her.

At the same time, research shows that diverse opinions are important for growth and decision-making. To improve efficiency and overall functioning, Yu's team argued, schools, businesses and other institutions need to create established paths for those perceived as low-status to have access to those higher in status.

One important tool, the team wrote, is the creation of well-rounded mentorship programs. Another is a process for scouring biases from selection and hiring processes.

Want to get to the top? Being nice to the receptionist and every other employee up and down the ladder makes a difference. But you'll also need to seek out colleagues with power and prestige. So the next time you see a status-chaser in action, stifle the righteous sneer. You may even decide to swallow your pride and try to curry some favor yourself.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, assistant professor of management – organizational behavior at Jones Graduate School of Business, and Gavin J. Kilduff, associate professor of management and organizations at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Most workers surveyed visualize their organization as either a ladder structure or a pyramid, and the quality of relationships in pyramid-structured workplaces is higher than in ladder-structured workplaces. Photo via Pexels

The way a workplace is structured can make or break business, Rice University research finds

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It's a paradox of power: research shows that hierarchies often undermine the very structures they are designed to uphold. Within organizations, conflicts between members can erode entire systems. In a groundbreaking paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu shows that even visual perceptions of the hierarchy can influence its success.

In the first study of its kind, Yu joined a team of colleagues to explore how humans visualize the hierarchies to which they belong – and how that thought process influences group processes and outcomes.

The researchers found that most of the people they studied thought of hierarchies in terms of pyramids or ladders (a tiny minority visualized them as circles or squares). In a ladder hierarchy or stratified structure, each member occupies a particular rung. A pyramid hierarchy is more centralized, with one person at the top and multiple people on the lower levels. Think of corporate giant CISCO, a typical pyramid, versus a mid-size dry cleaning business, with the owner at the top and one person on each rung below, down to the entry-level cashier.

These are far more than fanciful images, the researchers argued. Psychological research has long shown that individuals think, feel and act in response to mental representations of their environment. Intuitively, the link between perception and behavior has been articulated as far back as biblical times: "As a man thinketh, so is he" – or, for that matter, she or they.

To better understand the practical effects of these visualizations, Yu's team conducted five studies with 2,951 people and 221 workplace groups. They chose from nationwide pools monitored by West and East Coast American universities. The studies took place in the United States and the Netherlands and included multiple ethnicities, men and women, and income groups ranging from college students to seasoned professionals earning upwards of $90,000 annually.

In the first study, the team asked participants to indicate the shape that best reflected how they thought about hierarchies: pyramid, ladder, circle or square. In the second study, the researchers measured social relationship quality within different groups: participants were asked to rate their answers to questions such as, "Are your needs met at work? Do you feel socially supported?" In the third study, the researchers focused on professional workgroups, measuring relationship quality, group performance and the likelihood that individuals compare themselves to others in the group.

Subjects who perceived their working group as a ladder, the researchers found, were more likely to compare their rank and station with others. Their relationships were also weaker: when asked whether they trusted their team members, most subjects disagreed or strongly disagreed. When asked whether they thought about if they were better or worse than their colleagues, they agreed and strongly agreed. These comparisons and lack of trust indirectly correlated with lower performance levels, the research showed.

Perceiving one's organization as a ladder structure, Yu's team argued, undermines group members' relationships with each other and hinders collective performance. In contrast, participants who visualized the same company as pyramids rated radically higher on all three quality measures.

Interestingly, the impact of these visualizations is similar, whether the visualizations reflect an actual company structure or simply an individual's perception of that structure. "It can be created by both perception and actual rank, for example, job titles," Yu said in an interview. "So, as a practical implication, companies should think about ways to reduce the ladder system, such as with a promotion system that seems more like a pyramid, or by creating the mutual belief that upward mobility within the company is not a ladder or zero-sum."

Managers, in other words, need to pay close attention to how subordinates see their workplace. Even if your firm is structured as a pyramid, your team members could perceive it to be a ladder – with a cut-throat climb to the top. For the sake of both work performance and quality of life, Yu said, managers, human resources directors and C-suite members should do their best to discern how their workers visualize the company – and, if the paradigm is a ladder, work hard to reduce the workplace vertigo that goes with it.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business Rice University.

Research and common sense suggest that membership in a high social class improves one's sense of well being. Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Rice University researcher looks into what creates social well being

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How nice! You're early. It's just you and your mat, alone for a moment at the office's weekly Zoom yoga session. Breathing in, you silently applaud yourself for investing in your well-being.

Then a guy from upper management pops onto the screen for a bit of his own inner peace. He's not even looking your way, but suddenly you're comparing yourself to a fit, well-groomed, manicured corporate star. You wonder if you're a victim of a gender wage gap. You muse whether your social standing is undermined by race, age or your choice of partner.

Humans can't help comparing social status. What goes into the social pecking order, however, is surprisingly complex. What we call social class is actually a web of subtle signals telegraphing traits including wealth, education and occupational prestige.

But the effects of social class are concrete. Membership in a high social class alters our influence over other people, our professional and personal opportunities, even our health. Social class even affects the private, internal gauge of how we're doing – what researchers call subjective well-being, or SWB. And what you, in Zoom yoga, might call your level of chill.

But why exactly is external class ranking so potent?

For years, research and common sense suggested that external social class largely determines our subjective well-being. But the exact dynamic has never been fully analyzed. So in a recent paper, Rice Business Professor Siyu Yu and colleague Steven Blader, of NYU Stern, looked closely at how the status/well-being link functions – and why, in certain cases, it's irrelevant.

According to their findings, simply belonging to a higher social class actually has a weaker, less consistent effect on inner well-being than do two specific components of class: status and power.

To analyze the way status and power affect the impact of social class, Yu and Blader designed a set of four studies. In one, they used archival data from two employee surveys, Midlife In The United States and Midlife In Japan, to measure employee status and power and how these variables affected each individual's social class and sense of subjective well-being.

In the three others, the team analyzed the interplay of social class, power and status in various walks of life. To do this, they looked at employee data sets of 325 and 370 people respectively, drawn from Amazon's Mechanical Turk (a crowdsourced marketplace favored by researchers which performs tasks virtually). In one study, the researchers ranked each participant's self-perceived social class by asking them to state their own level of status and power. In another, they asked 250 participants questions about their individual psychological needs and how they might be addressed by status or by power. In the third, they isolated the precise ways that status and power affect subjective well-being.

Status, the researchers found, greatly boosted the effect of social class on subjective well-being. Power, they found, had separate and significant effects of its own on SBW. Of the two separate factors, status had the stronger impact. The researchers theorized that this is because power, energizing as it may be, also tends to stunt feelings of social support and relatedness, which is crucial to a sense of well-being. High status, on the other hand, is by definition a reflection of relationships, which we're hard-wired to crave. As Yu and her cowriter put it, status is "voluntarily and continuously conferred based on one's personal characteristics and behaviors and, thus, others' … highly personalized assessment of our value."

Both status and power, the evidence suggested, boost inner well-being because they fulfill key psychological needs: our desire to belong, for example, or our wish to have a say in situations affecting us.

Partly because of the study's methodology limitations, however, the researchers cautioned there's more to understand. Most pressing: in the U.S. sample, between 83%-95% of participants were white. Would the researchers' current findings hold true across a broader racial spectrum? How about with groups that have spent decades overcoming outside assaults on their sense of self?

What the team's research does show definitively is the multi-faceted nature of social class – something that otherwise might seem to be monolithic. It sheds light on the various facets that make up social rank. And it spotlights the need for research on the separate effects of power, of status, and how each element fulfills psychological needs. Isolating the effects of these factors, Yu and his colleague argued, show why researchers need to consider power and status distinctly when studying issues like income, education and occupation.

Back to Zoom yoga. Breathe out. Then do your best to just look away from your high-ranking colleague in the neighboring zoom box. You're not imagining the unease you felt when he sailed into the room. Yet who knows? Your high-flying superior worker may not actually feel as respected or empowered as you'd think when he rolls up his mat and goes back to his desktop. You, meanwhile, are equipped with new analytical insights that could help establish your next goals. Do you aspire to more power? More external esteem? Or maybe you already possess some other key to inner equilibrium – some element in apart from either status and power – that research has yet to uncover.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Siyu Yu, an assistant professor of management – organizational behavior at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

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This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Samsung sets sights on nearly $200 billion expansion in Texas

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As it builds a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor, tech giant Samsung is eyeing a long-term strategy in the Texas area that could lead to a potential investment of close to $200 billion.

Samsung’s plans, first reported by the Austin Business Journal, call for an additional $192.1 billion investment in the Austin area over several decades that would create at least 10,000 new jobs at 11 new chipmaking plants. These facilities would be at the new Taylor site and the company’s existing site in Northeast Austin.

The first of the 11 new plants wouldn’t be completed until 2034, according to the Business Journal.

“Samsung has a history already in the Austin market as an employer of choice, providing high wages, great benefits, and a great working environment. All of this will be on steroids in the not-too-distant future, creating a historic boost to the already booming Austin economy,” John Boyd Jr., a corporate site selection consultant, tells CultureMap.

Samsung’s preliminary plans were revealed in filings with the State of Texas seeking possible financial incentives for the more than $190 billion expansion. The South Korean conglomerate says the filings are part of the company’s long-range planning for U.S. chipmaking facilities.

Given that Samsung’s 11 new plants would be decades in the making, there’s no certainty at this point that any part of the potential $192.1 billion expansion will ever be built.

Last November, Samsung announced it would build a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor to complete its semiconductor operations in Northeast Austin. Construction is underway, with completion set for 2024. Boyd proclaimed last year that the Taylor project will trigger an “economic tsunami” in the quiet Williamson County suburb.

The Taylor facility, which is expected to employ more than 2,000 people, ranks among the largest foreign economic development projects in U.S. history. The impact of a nearly $200 billion cluster of 11 new chipmaking plants would far eclipse the Taylor project.

The Taylor factory will produce advanced chips that power mobile and 5G capabilities, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.