It’s All Relative
The first principle of making social comparison work for us is to assess whether or not the social comparison is “in” or “out” of order. If we expect our peer to win—and they do—the social comparison can be unpleasant, but it is unlikely to be toxic. If, however, we expect to beat our peer and they win, we need to anticipate a charged emotional reaction.
The second principle of finding the right social comparison balance is providing new opportunities to compete, so that disappointment can be turned into motivation. In other words, will we have the chance to channel regret in a constructive direction?
Athletes who come in second at the Olympics may never get a second shot at the gold. But for most of us, whether we’re competing for a job, a promotion, or a position on the neighborhood council, we will get a second (or even a third or fourth) chance. So instead of licking our wounds at our defeat at the hands of a rival, we would do well to take matters into our own hands; to get back on that horse and try, try again.
A third key principle to remember about managing social comparisons is to anticipate the possibility that our successes will upset others, even if those around us don’t voice their frustration. After buying a new car or renovating a house, we are often excited to share our new purchases or renovations with other people. But we should err on the side of modesty. This means thinking carefully before we post pictures on Facebook of our new purchases, our renovations, and our exotic vacations. People may congratulate us, but keep in mind that when people feel envy, they rarely admit it. As a result, we may easily miss signs that we have triggered social comparisons.
One way to be modest is to share negative information. Sure, when you get back from your vacation in Fiji, your coworkers and friends will ask you how it was. So, instead of simply showing them 100 photos of the beautiful vistas and meals, and regaling them with tales of your once-in-a-lifetime experience in a shark cage, try telling them about the day it rained and how you had to stay indoors, or how the airline lost your luggage. You’ll be surprised by how satisfied people will be when you allow them to indulge in some schadenfreude.
And finally, when it comes to using social comparison to boost your own motivation, here is the key rule to keep in mind: Seek favorable comparisons if you want to feel happier, and seek unfavorable comparisons if you want to push yourself harder. In other words, when you want to feel better about yourself, consider those who are less fortunate. (Or better yet, spend time volunteering for those less fortunate.) Conversely, when you want to light a competitive fire, consider those who have accomplished a bit more than you have.
It’s Good to Be the King…Until It Isn’t
Just as a car needs both acceleration and a steering wheel to reach its destination, people need power and perspective-taking to be successful…and to hold on to their throne.
So how can we get the powerful to become more effective perspective-takers? One way is to direct their attention toward team objectives. Leigh Tost of the University of Michigan found that she could get the powerful to integrate and consider the perspective and advice of experts when she directed their attention toward the team goal of making the best decision. When powerful individuals focus on team goals rather than their own selfish goal of retaining power, they are more likely to realize that others have something unique to contribute.
Another method is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, to make the powerful explain their policies and articulate their rationale behind their actions.
One final tip for harnessing power without its side effects of hubris and selfishness is to select leaders who already have a pretty good psychological steering wheel. An old piece of advice for those on first dates comes into play here: Watch how your date treats the waitstaff at dinner. They may be on their best behavior with you, but how they treat those with less power can portend their treatment of you when you are weak or vulnerable.
When Hierarchy Wins…And When It Loses
By understanding a few basic principles, you can make hierarchy win with the fewest casualties along the way. Whenever we use a hierarchy, we make a trade-off between coordination and voice. Hierarchy creates a fundamental tension between suppressing individuality to achieve synchrony and denying key insights from those below.
Here are some key rules that can help you decide when to have more versus less hierarchy. For interdependent physical tasks, we need coordination and therefore hierarchy can win here. But for complex, dynamic decisions, ones that require the involvement of different perspectives, hierarchy can lose and even kill. To make the best decisions, leaders need to create psychological safety that encourages broad participation. And finally, almost every group still needs a leader, someone who sets the vision and the course and integrates all the different perspectives to make the final decision.
How Names Can Bond and Bully
Choosing the right name to capture an internal feeling can help you deal with that feeling, or even harness it, rather than be defeated by it.
Finding the right name can also help us transition out of a bad mood before it spirals into competitive feelings. Take the example of how one couple addresses the invariably cranky behavior that we all experience. When one of them is in a bad mood, the other simply asks, “Are you having a fuss?” This couple has found that by giving a name to this state, it takes the force out of the bad mood and defuses the situation. By naming the situation “a fuss,” this couple moves from foe back to friend.
Matthew Lieberman at UCLA offers some insight into why this strategy works. Giving a name to an emotion as we experience it reduces activation in the parts of the brain like the amygdala that light up under duress. In other words, identifying and naming what we feel help us process and let go of our negative emotions.
In fact, correctly naming our emotions is one of the most powerful steps in dealing with those emotions. If we come home frustrated and angry from work, we may take out our anger on our spouse and kids. If, however, we identify our feelings and figure out what triggered those emotions (e.g., “I am angry because of what happened at work”), scholars have consistently found that we become dramatically less likely to displace our feelings. By naming and attributing our feelings, we are less likely to take our anger (triggered by our foes) out on undeserving others (like our friends).
How to Get Others to Put Their Trust in You
By making yourself vulnerable, it is possible to build trust in less time than it takes to mop up a spilled latte.
Of course, there are many ways to make ourselves vulnerable. Instead of spilling coffee, we can reveal a secret or make a mistake. One of our executive students was seen at work as highly competent but cold, so she tried a new tactic: She purposely began to introduce typos and grammatical errors in some of her e-mails to colleagues, to make her appear more human, and thus warmer. And indeed, her workplace relationships improved after she started including typos.
But not all pratfalls are good.
To get the benefits of appearing vulnerable, you have to establish your credibility first. It was the high-performing student who benefited from spilling the coffee. And think back to Ron Klein, the congressman who beat the powerhouse incumbent. His competence was never in question. Without his credibility, talking about his son to make him seem warm would not have been effective in winning voters’ trust. Or, take our former student who purposely placed typos in her e-mails. She only did this after she had demonstrated her competence.
The other side of that coin is that you must be careful not to make yourself vulnerable in a way that undermines your credibility. Again the context matters. Psychiatrists can build trust by spilling their coffee and saying, “I’ve never been very good with my hands.” Surgeons cannot. It is essential that the vulnerable episode does not compromise your credibility or competence in a domain in which you are trying to inspire trust
Seeing It Their Way to Get Your Way
Perspective-taking without any empathy is dangerous. Take bullies: They are great at appreciating someone’s vulnerabilities…and taking advantage of them.
These effects of perspective-taking also apply to the thorny question of whether we should meet our foes face-to-face or not. It’s generally believed that face-to-face meetings are the key to establishing rapport and incipient feelings of trust.
Face-to-face meetings can be the glue that binds people together. But in overly competitive situations, face-to-face meetings can cause conflict to erupt into full-scale animosity.
President Jimmy Carter came to appreciate this dynamic back in 1978. When trying to broker a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Carter brought President Anwar El Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to Camp David. After days of face-to-face negotiations, President Carter was confronted with increasing suspicion. His hope of a landmark peace treaty was on the verge of collapse as he found himself caught between two feuding adversaries. “It was mean,” he told his wife. “They were brutal with each other, personal.”
President Carter then made a dramatic decision: He temporarily cut off face-to-face contact with these adversaries and met with each leader individually. He shuttled back and forth, receiving offers and counteroffers, while preventing direct interaction between the two leaders. The physical distance calmed their competitive impulses. The result was a groundbreaking peace treaty, one that would earn Carter the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, what allowed them to come together in their famous handshake photo was actually being physically apart during the negotiation.
The key factor that determines whether it is better to be face-to-face or far apart is where people are on the friend-foe continuum. When people are unsure of whether to compete or cooperate, meeting face-to-face creates rapport that guides the interaction into cooperative territory. Closer contact helps smooth the cogs of social interaction and enables trust to develop.
But if two individuals already feel great animosity toward each other, the ability to see and hear each other inflames competitive feelings. In this case, the ability to see your partner decreases the likelihood of reaching a settlement.
How to Cross the Finish Line
Endings matter. As we wrap things up, we might mistakenly assume that our hard work is done. It is not. To cooperate and compete effectively in the future, we need to take great care in how we make our last move.
As we all know, our memories are far from perfect. One way in which our memories mislead us, however, has particular relevance for how we close. It turns out that when we recall past events, we are particularly influenced by how things end.
A friendly ending can give us great opportunities in the future. Just as a satisfied customer returns, a satisfied negotiation partner also returns. In addition, a satisfied counterpart can spread the word, bolstering our reputation and building a network of people eager to work with us. By reaching an agreement on terms that leave our counterpart happy, we increase our chances of having successful outcomes not just with him or her but with others in the future.
Moreover, our counterpart’s satisfaction today makes it far easier to gain concessions tomorrow. “Remember how I gave you that great deal last time? Well, I’m going to need a little help from you this time.” And the converse is certainly true. If our counterpart felt that they got a bad deal the last time, they will be looking to make up for it the next time. A feeling of lingering injustice, in other words, can transform a friend into a foe.