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Getting noticed is the key to higher status

Raj Persaud
BSc MSc MB BS MPhil FRCPsych
Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist The Maudsley Hospital London

Nursing is not conventionally seen as a profession you go into if you are power mad, want to rule the world, invade other countries or take over other firms. Instead the perception is that nurses want to care for others and be of service.
Yet, a new way of thinking about what ends up making us less happy with our lives is to take account of the perspective of power. It could be that we all harbour a fundamental need to have influence over others, and part of the frustrations of being a nurse is a sense of constantly being ordered about, or being at the "beck and call" of others - colleagues and even patients.
It may be that nurses need to start thinking more clearly about what they need to do to achieve higher personal status where they work.

Recently a group of psychologists at the University of Illinois used personality testing to examine the link between personality and the attainment of leadership or higher status positions in student organisations at universities. The research has made an important contribution to our understanding of what the secret ingredient is to the personality type who climbs the greasy pole of power in organisations.

The pursuit of power appears to be a fundamental determinant in eventual success in status attainment. Status, and in particular relative status between people, appears to be a key influence on how relationships are conducted and how much influence we have over others. Status seeking, argue the researchers in this study, could be considered a primary and universal human motive, although this appears to have   been surprisingly neglected by psychological researchers.

Perhaps the hierarchies that we inhabit in modern society are not as transparent as they used to be - in the past deferring to one's superiors was not only  more expected, but maybe it was clearer who we should defer to. We live in more informal times where deferment is not so reflexive, indeed traditionally powerful professions, such as medicine, are increasingly complaining about the sense of power and influence seeping away due to questioning of doctors' authority.

The power that nurses felt in the past from their patients' respect for them may similarly be ebbing away as this reverence also seems to be on the wane.

A large part of the strain of working in medicine as a doctor or nurse could be said to centre on issues linked to frustrations over a lack of personal influence over others, colleagues and patients.

This new research found that some essential personality characteristics were strongly linked to how much influence you attained over others and these included "extraversion" (being sociable and socially confident) and "conscientiousness" (fulfilling obligations). The authors argue that extraversion facilitates getting noticed and conscientiousness enables potential leaders or seekers after higher status, to present themselves as role models.

While nurses are often extremely conscientious they may not realise that "getting noticed" is key to achieving higher status and may need to draw more attention to themselves or the valuable role they play in the organisations they work in.
Interestingly this research found that being extravert and conscientious were not the sufficient key predictors of who attained formal executive power or genuine high formal status, which was instead most closely linked with having an "ambitious power orientation".

It was also particularly notable that the attainment of prestigious offices in democratic organisations, ie, those where you needed to court the favour of an electorate, was associated with high "agreeableness". Agreeableness, argues the authors of this study, provides the necessary social skills to offset the negative impressions colleagues often have of overtly ambitious individuals.

So, the art of attaining higher status or power appears to revolve around a delicate combination of both ambition and likeability. Perhaps nurses try too hard to be liked and therefore lose power that way.

Its striking the right balance in this arena of personality that appears to be the secret magic ingredient to success in the pursuit of power and it could be that nurses who are often frustrated in their pursuit of status and influence need to learn more about how to achieve the right balance in this dimension of personality.

Harms PD, Roberts BW, Wood D. Who shall lead? An integrative personality approach to the study of the antecedents of status in informal social organizations. J Res Personality (in press).