Status exists in all societies but varies in fundamental ways. Cross cultural differences in they way in which we perceive status, gain status and react to status differ from culture to culture.
In this article we examine the cross cultural differences with relation to status and analyse how they manifest in certain areas in the workplace. For the sake of simplicity we identify two types of status; ‘ascribed-status’ and ‘achieved-status’.
Ascribed-status refers to those cultures that base status upon external qualities such as age, wealth, education or gender. If one has the right external characteristics, status is ascribed to them. In such cultures there is little room for others to gain status through actions and achievements.
Achieved-status, as its title suggests, is earned. Internal qualities are valued more than external ones. Therefore, status is achieved through accomplishments such as hard work and contributions to a company or community. In such cultures status is malleable, in that it can be lost as quickly as it is gained and status can shift to other individuals.
Status and Hierarchy:
An area that status impacts within businesses is organisational hierarchies. In ascribed-status cultures there tends to be rigid hierarchies that define roles, practices and processes. For example, employees will tend to focus solely on their own responsibilities and generally not offer suggestions to those above them in the hierarchy, as to do so would be disrespectful. In such organisations, change is very rarely bottom up.
In achieved-status cultures, hierarchies exist but are less formal. The egalitarian nature of such cultures usually means that more value is placed on development and progression rather than respect for status. Consequently, lower level employees would generally feel empowered to make suggestions directly to seniors.
Status and Formality:
The formality of a culture is usually a good indication of the significance of status. The use of names between colleagues is one of the more observable manifestations of status in the workplace.
In ascribed-status cultures colleagues will generally address each other using titles and surnames. Professionals, such as doctors, architects and lawyers, would expect to be addressed by their professional titles. First names are usually only used between family and friends.
In achieved-status cultures, people commonly use first names. This is because individuals will usually feel of equal worth with one another and see no need to demonstrate deference to a more senior ranked colleague.
Status and Management:
A manager in an achieved-status culture will usually take on the role of a mentor. The manager will be a reference point and will guide those under him/her to develop their skills and perform their duties with minimal guidance. Subordinates can and do challenge a manager’s decision.
In contrast, in ascribed-status cultures, the manager is expected to give orders and know all the answers. The manager is seen to be experienced, knowledgeable and able to deal with problems effectively. Rather than a mentor, the manager in such a culture takes on more of a parental role as he/she is expected to take care of employees by ascribing duties and overseeing how they handle them. Manager’s decisions are typically not challenged.
Status and Information:
The flow of information between people in companies and organisations is another area affected by cross cultural differences in status. In cultures where status is achieved, information usually flows easily between ranks. Directly approaching a senior colleague of another department for consultation, advice or feedback will have a certain amount of protocol attached to it, but is commonplace.
Conversely, in achieved-status cultures information flow is a lot less fluid. There are only certain avenues one can take to either relay or gain information. For example, if the scenario mentioned above occurred in such a culture, the senior colleague would probably feel offended. In this circumstance, the correct protocol would be for the lower ranking colleague to approach his/her manager and ask them to approach the manager of the other department for information or feedback.
As we have seen from the few examples cited above, cross cultural differences with relation to status can and do impact upon a business. If a business is multi-cultural, problems can occur where differences in hierarchy, status and protocol lead to poor communication between staff and frustration with colleagues.