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Why status is a better motivator than money

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Why status is a better motivator than money

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I’ve written a bit recently about the role envy plays in the workplace, and nowhere is this more evident than in how we are paid.  For instance, studies have shown that we are generally less happy being wealthier in absolute terms, if that meant we were poorer relative to our peers.

It’s a phenomenon known as the local ladder effect, and a recent study highlighted how important this was for workplace happiness.  The study explored the role status played in our sense of well being.

The study saw researchers collect three bits of data about participants:

  1. Their income
  2. Their social status, as both measured by themselves and their peers
  3. Their happiness

The study revealed that the participants with a better social standing were happier, but those who were wealthier were not.  The researchers claim that this is further evidence of the importance of our standing in the local community to our sense of well being.

The findings were replicated in follow up studies.  For instance, a group of MBA students were monitored throughout their course.  Data revealed that their happiness was derived more from the respect they received from their peers than from any superficial wealth they had obtained.

The researchers suggest that this is because we are so quick to adapt to any changes in our superficial surroundings.  “One of the reasons why money doesn’t buy happiness is that people quickly adapt to the new level of income or wealth. Lottery winners, for example, are initially happy but then return to their original level of happiness quickly.” they say.

Suffice to say, the workplace is awash with means by which we can compare ourselves to others.  A paper published a few years ago highlights the destructive characteristics of envy, especially among employees with relatively large egos.

“Suppose your supervisor gives your coworker a raise and not you, a raise you feel was given for an arbitrary reason,” the paper says. “You would be more likely to undermine your co-worker as a means of expressing this hostility.” As for the high self-esteem individuals, “It’s the narcissism effect,” it continues. “Not only is the raise given to the other person unfairly, but you feel you should be getting [an even higher raise] because you believe you deserve it.”

The paper suggests that there are three factors that underpin our professional jealousy:

  1. Are we out performed by a colleague?
  2. Do we care about the area where a difference has occurred?
  3. How close is the reference point to whom we are envious?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others is a natural thing.  A Dutch study however suggested that there are in facts two kinds of envy, malicious and benign.  Benign envy was when you believe someones achievements were deserved, malicious envy was when you did not.  Here is the thing.  When participants in the study had either admiration or malicious envy for another, their subsequent efforts did not change one bit.  When they had benign envy however they increased their efforts as a result.

So if you want to utilize the local ladder effect for positive ends in your workplace, you best do all you can to promote benign envy rather than the malicious kind.

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