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 family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.