The contest for in-group status is for good or for bad an integral part of all social environments. In his book “The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play it”, Will Storr outlines three types of status games that people participate in – dominance, success, and virtue games.
In this article, we’ll try to illustrate the impact all three games might have on a startup team in order to let you manage their effects as a startup founder.
“Status … is hierarchical. Who’s number one? Who’s number two? Who’s number three? And for number three to move to number two, number two has to move out of that slot. So, status is a zero-sum game.” ― Naval Ravikant
Status games are zero-sum games. This means that they don’t often create value. That said, rooting them out completely might be wishful thinking – the fight for social status is too deeply ingrained in all of us.
Moreover, as Will Storr argues, some status games are not always destructive – they might have very strong positive externalities.
1. Virtue Games
Virtue games are the games of values (most easily seen in religions). While they are not always destructive in startups – they push people to conform to common values like hard work, honesty, etc., they could easily spiral out of control.
Emphasizing too much on virtue games might give birth to a holier-than-thou attitude in some group members. And if all your team cares about is demonstrating they care about said values more than other people, this could quickly become destructive.
The easiest example to give is people working insane hours because they don’t want to stand out as not pulling their own weight in the team. Cultivating such an environment could easily lead to burnout, which might push some of your most capable team members to look for a better work environment elsewhere. Attracting and keeping top startup talent is hard enough anyway, so you should make certain you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by cultivating a destructive culture.
Virtue games spiraling out of control is a real risk in startups because startup teams are often brought together not just by the promise of huge profits, but also by a vision of changing the world for the better. This implies that values are at the core of the group, so it’s crucial not to let virtue signaling become an all-consuming competition among your team members.
2. Dominance Games
The second type is dominance games – being able to impose yourself by force. While this is the modus operandi of mobsters, a lot of corporations also engage in such games. Aggressive takeovers to maintain a market share and stifle innovation, aggressive lawsuits to drown smaller competitors in legal fees, lobbying to get legislation through that is favorable to you at the expense of others, etc.
While the first argument for avoiding dominance games is simply that they are ethically wrong, there is another strong argument for that – they don’t usually work for startups.
First, dominance games require a lot of resources, and startups simply cannot afford to play them against established corporations.
Second, the startup world is very volatile, and the people you bully to get your way could all of a sudden become influential. This means that Machiavellian tactics are politically very risky. Playing dominance games is a sure way to make enemies, and as a startup with access to few resources in a world of flipping fortunes, this is a scary prospect.
3. Success Games
Last but not least, success games are the games of gaining social status by being successful in what you are doing. Needless to say, success games are deeply engrained in the startup world and they are one of the major reasons the Silicon Valley culture of innovation and disruption exists.
Success games are the status games that are safest to encourage. Yet, in some cases, they could also spiral out of control, especially when they are so central to your culture that it becomes a viable strategy to undermine your teammates in order to make yourself look better.
In conclusion, while status games are an integral part of social groups, it’s important to build a startup culture that makes cooperation more socially rewarding than internal competition.