Amy Langer is one of the most admired business leaders in the Twin Cities, as is her business partner, John Folkestad. Their company, Salo, LLC, has been on the Twin Cities Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” list multiple times, and is one of the first certified as a Blue Zone company. Years ago, Amy was presenting to a class of MBA students at Carlson School of Management. After speaking for a half hour, she felt like she wasn’t get the reaction from students that she expected. When the class took a break, Amy said to her work colleague, “They don’t seem to find me very funny.” Her colleague said, with utmost respect, “People’s reactions can be very different when you are not paying them.”
Amy relayed this cautionary tale to me recently. She uses it as a reminder to always consider the relationship between audience and status. When you’re with people who work for you, you can normally anticipate a receptive audience. When you’re speaking with those who don’t know you and don’t owe you anything, you need to up your game. That’s exactly what Amy did in the second half of her presentation to the Carlson students. She spoke to them as if they owed her nothing, and she was able to win them over.
High Status Changes Social Context
Leaders like to be authentic and lead authentically. They assume their relationships with coworkers are authentic, too. In doing so, they ignore or underestimate the power differential’s impact on these relationships. Leaders can be authentic without much danger; they can make social missteps and reveal shortcomings, but still retain most, if not all, of their power. The same can’t be said for their employees. There’s a lot of pressure on these employees to be inauthentic (to varying degrees) in order to stay in the leader’s good graces and remain in the hunt for raises or promotions.
Our culture is far more accepting and forgiving of those with high status. Richard Branson suffers from dyslexia and for a long time at the Virgin Group didn’t know the difference between net and gross profits. Because of his track record of success, we admire him and forgive his lack of ability with numbers. But if he didn’t have his high status, would you be eager to turn your company over to a CEO who couldn’t distinguish between net and gross? Chuck Schwaab is one of the biggest advocates for people with learning challenges, and he struggles himself with reading. How many people would hire an executive who has difficulty reading?
How Is High Status Affecting Your Relationships?
Unless you’re in Richard Branson or Chuck Schwaab’s class, your audience will likely alter your status. When you’re in front of a new audience, don’t assume they owe you anything. When you’re in front of a familiar audience, be aware that others are paid to laugh at your jokes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show up authentically. It just means that you may need to look outside your organization for objective input on your leadership.