The struggle for group status is an integral part of all social environments for good or bad. 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 try to illustrate the impact of all three games on a startup team, so that you as a startup founder can manage their effects.
“Status… is hierarchical. Who is number one? Who is number two? Who is number three? And for number three to go to number two, number two has to come out of that slot. So status is a zero-sum game.” – Marine Ravikant
Status games are zero-sum games. This means they don’t often create value. That said, it may be wishful thinking to eradicate them completely – the struggle for social status is too ingrained in all of us.
Furthermore, as Will Storr argues, some status games aren’t always destructive – they can have very strong positive externalities.
1. Virtue Games
Virtues games are the games of values (most easily seen in religions). While they are not always destructive to startups – forcing people to conform to common values such as hard work, honesty, etc., they can easily get out of hand.
Placing too much emphasis on virtue games can lead to a holier-than-thou attitude in some group members. And if all your team cares about is showing that they care about those values more than other people, it can quickly become destructive.
The easiest example to give is people who work insane hours because they don’t want to stand out because they don’t pull their weight on the team. Cultivating such an environment can easily lead to burnout, prompting some of your most capable team members to seek a better work environment elsewhere. Attracting and retaining top startup talent is hard enough anyway, so make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by cultivating a destructive culture.
Virtue games getting out of hand pose a real risk to startups, as startup teams are often brought together not only by the promise of huge profits, but also by a vision to change the world for the better. This means that values are at the heart of the group, so it’s critical that virtue signaling doesn’t become an all-consuming competition among your team members.
2. Dominance Games
The second type are dominance games – being able to impose yourself by force. Although this is the modus operandi of gangsters, many companies are also involved in such games. Aggressive takeovers to maintain market share and nip innovation in the bud, aggressive litigation to drown smaller competitors in legal fees, lobbying to pass legislation that benefits you at the expense of others, etc.
While the first argument for avoiding domination games is simply that they are ethically wrong, there is another strong argument: they usually don’t work for startups.
First, dominance games require a lot of resources, and startups simply can’t afford to play them against established companies.
Second, the startup world is very volatile and the people you bully to get your way can suddenly become influential. This means that Machiavellian tactics are politically very risky. Playing dominance games is a surefire way to make enemies, and as a startup with access to few resources in a world of shifting fortunes, this is a scary prospect.
3. Success games
Last but not least, success games are the games to gain social status by being successful in what you do. It goes without saying that success games are deeply rooted in the startup world and are one of the main reasons why the Silicon Valley culture of innovation and disruption exists.
Success games are the status games that are safest to encourage. But in some cases, they can also get out of hand, especially when they’re so central to your culture that it becomes a viable strategy to undermine your teammates to make yourself look better.
In conclusion, while status games are an integral part of social groups, it is important to build a startup culture that makes collaboration more socially rewarding than internal competition.