Social scientists have spent decades studying how individuals achieve status within organizational groups — that is, how they gain respect, prominence, and influence in the eyes of others. We know, for example, that demographics matter: People of the historically dominant race and gender and a respected age (white men over 40 in the western corporate world) are typically afforded higher status than everyone else. Appearance also plays a role (the tall and the good-looking are favored over those less genetically blessed), as do personality (confident extroverts win out) and formal rank (the boss is the boss).
Thankfully, we also use more legitimate measures to size up new teammates. These include expertise, competence, and commitment — all good indicators of whether a person will command others' respect. But although educational and professional credentials may testify to these assets, they can be difficult to assess immediately. So at first, as a shortcut, we often revert to using the aforementioned easily observable characteristics to determine who is worthy of leading the group.
Initial perceptions, of course, are subject to change as people work together and prove their merit. Still, the old adage "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is at least partially true. Numerous studies show that social hierarchies develop quickly and are generally stable: People who achieve high status early tend to retain it.
All these findings suggest — rather dishearteningly — that the influence you'll have on a group is largely predetermined by factors beyond your control. In this article, we present evidence that challenges that notion. Through a series of experiments, we have shown that anyone can achieve higher status on a team, both at the outset and over time, by temporarily shifting his or her mind-set before a first meeting. Put simply, the attitude with which you enter a new group — something completely within your control — can help boost your chances of leading it.