Status, knowledge, learning and adaptability, Part 1

As a facilitator, people often comment on “safety” in group settings. Most group work I have done in my career has been safe, relatively speaking. There may have been the possibility of retaliatory actions for speaking up, workplace bullying or general boorish behaviour, but I have hardly ever (!) worked in spaces where real physical safety was an issue.

Still, the issue of safety and fear comes up surprisingly often, and this article at the gave me a few insights about this problem.

This article looks to ancient human history to understand some of these dynamics and it begins by looking at two kinds of status in humans: dominance and prestige. In dominance hierarchies we are afraid of the higher status person and there is deference and backing away. In prestige hierarchies we are drawn to the higher status person because they have information that can help us survive.

In some organizations where there is fear it may be that dominance is the mode. So the teaching here is to find ways to gather information so that you are valuable to the organization. What questions does the organization not have answers to? Gathering that information. It levels the playing field so that people who are physically dominant find themselves in a different status relationship.

Another area that we’ve worked on is social status. Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.

This is the kind of status you get from being particularly knowledgeable or skilled in an area, and the reason it’s a kind of status is because once animals, humans in this case, can learn from each other, they can possess resources. You have information resources that can be tapped, and then you want to isolate the members of your group who are most likely to have a lot of this resources, meaning a lot of the knowledge or information that could be useful to you in the future. This causes you to focus on those individuals, differentially attend to them, preferentially listen to them and give them deference in exchange for knowledge that you get back, for copying opportunities in the future.

It turns out that adaptation to fluctuating environments makes it important for people with knowledge, as opposed to force, to be dominant. Physical dominance won’t help you survive fluctuations that are bigger than you can control.

Of course, the evidence available in the Paleolithic record is pretty sparse, so another possibility is that it emerged about 800,000 years ago. One theoretical reason to think that that might be an important time to emerge is that there’s theoretical models that show that culture, our ability to learn from others, is an adaptation to fluctuating environments. If you look at the paleo-climatic record, you can see that the environment starts to fluctuate a lot starting about 900,000 years ago and going to about six or five hundred thousand years ago.

This would have created a selection pressure for lots of cultural learning for lots of focusing on other members of your group, and taking advantage of that cumulative body of non-genetic knowledge.

Status is a really interesting phenomenon in group settings. In the improv world we play with status and rank: rank is fixed but status is malleable. Organizations are rife with status games. Watching any episode of The Office will quickly alert you to this fact. It’s funny when Michael Scott, the manager, adopts the high handed status of a mini CEO and equally funny when he makes a trip to the warehouse and cowers in the shadow of the highest status people on the show: the warehouse workers.

Because status is malleable, we can work with it to get the best from groups of people. When we are confronted with fluctuating environments for example, processes like Open Space Technology work well to level the status field and to invite anyone with knowledge to assume a leadership role. Such a process allows us to learn from others and allows for the emergence of communities of practice, which, if the are harnessed right, can support deep organizational and collective learning.

More on that in part 2.