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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 6, 2022


It turns out that designer labels and other signs of social status can get in the way of collaboration.



Welcome to episode 136 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we look at the impact of perceived social status on collaboration.

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who show off signs of social status, like fancy accessories, designer labels and high-end cars, are perceived to care more about self-interest than helping others. As a result, they are seen as less willing to collaborate and more competitive. When I came across this research there were a few examples that stand out in my mind.

The first was a leader who stood at the front of the room, talking to his team about innovation. At the end of his talk he said “speaking of innovation, why don’t you all come out to the car park”. He led the team out to show them his brand new Tesla, taking the next 30 minutes or so to show off every feature of the extraordinarily expensive car. He later received feedback that members of his team found him hard to relate to.

The next was a meeting with a General Manager. In her office I noticed she had a hand bag awkwardly placed on the table where we were meeting - almost like it was on display. I kept wondering why she didn’t take it off the table to give us more space. As we left, my colleague asked me if I noticed the bag. It turned out to be a luxury handbag worth many thousands of dollars. Her peers confided that the General Manager was aloof and not connected with her team.

The third was a meeting I heard about but wasn’t involved in. It was between the CEO of a trucking company and one of his lawyers at a restaurant. The lawyer was in a perfect suit, while the CEO wore functional if slightly dated clothes. At the end of the meeting as they left the restaurant, the CEO saw one of his company’s trucks coming down the road. He waved the driver over and hopped up into the cabin, asking if he and the lawyer could catch a ride back to the head office. Despite owning hundreds of trucks, he knew the driver by name. Apparently this was a regular occurrence. His employees absolutely loved him.

While we don’t want to obsess about our image, it pays to be selective in signs of wealth and social status if your objective is to build collaboration. Be wary of things that might come between you and your people.



Shalena Srna, Alixandra Barasch, Deborah A. Small. On the value of modesty: How signals of status undermine cooperation.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2022; DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000303