A person’s social status in an organisation, from a club to a nation, is a measure of their attributes of leadership and power. Social status takes the form of a pyramidical hierarchy. Each level in the hierarchy is known as a stratum. Those in a higher stratum are normally fewer in number and have greater social status than those in a lower stratum. Such hierarchies are ubiquitous. Even organisations whose stated aims are socialist and progressive have hierarchies within them. The perception of relative status is important in determining how people interact with one another. Those of higher status will trade delegated status for the support of those of lower status, and vice versa. However, they will often compete with those of similar status.
An understanding of how status hierarchies arise can be gained by considering very small groups of individuals. In a group of just two people, the attributes of leadership and power in both are often similar. This leads to an equitable balance in social status. It is only where the attributes of one are greater than those of the other that differences emerge. For example, if person A clearly has more knowledge of how to tackle a situation than person B, then, in their mutual interest, B may defer to A. Similarly, if person B is more dominant through reasons of personality, physical strength, economic power, etc., then person A, in his own interest, may defer to B.
However, in a group of three, a hierarchy is almost inevitable. If person A clearly has greater attributes of leadership and power than B & C combined, then they will usually defer to him. However, if the attributes of A & C are roughly equal but greater than those of B, then there will be competition between A & C. Person B may acknowledge the higher status of both, but to avoid lowest status, may support whoever offers him greatest benefit in return, e.g., A. The attributes of an alliance of two are usually greater than those of one alone. The result is, therefore, that A gains highest status, followed by his supporter B, and C has lowest status. As a rule, the hierarchy ABC will offer greater benefit to every member than would be the case if each operated in isolation, and so, it may be accepted.
Another strategy for B is to remain neutral and encourage competition between A & C. B can then either wait for one of the others to negotiate with him, or alternatively, approach the person least confident of winning the competition.
Even at this very small scale, it is not necessarily the most competent leader who achieves highest status. Much depends on how highly the group members value competent leadership over personal interest. Unfortunately, it is also the case that power tends to trump leadership. A social hierarchy can, therefore, often be based on the former rather than the latter.
Although the interactions described above are between two or three individuals, they take place on a day-to-day basis between members of much larger organisations, the organisations themselves, and sub-organisations within them. Ultimately, a highest status individual, whose motives may or may not be the same as those of the organisation, either emerges from it or joins it.
However, hierarchies in very small groups can be dynamic, whilst those in larger groups are more entrenched. Small organisations tend to be informal and influenced by the character of particular individuals. Thus, when individuals or circumstances change, then so too does the nature of the hierarchy. However, as hierarchies become larger and more complex, they increasingly need a formal structure, with titles and reporting lines. These enable people to better understand their roles and co-operate. In formal hierarchies, roles and reporting lines are independent of individuals, who may change from time to time.