Octavia Spencer, Icelandic Politics and 80’s Comedy

In January, a new law went into effect in Iceland. It is now illegal for companies which are larger than 25 employees to pay men more than women for doing the same job. To enforce this new law, companies must submit payroll records every three years to prove they pay employees on an equal level.

Later that same month, Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer spoke about the topic of equal pay during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival. She revealed that in contract negotiations for a current project, her co-star Jessica Chastain learned that Spencer was earning five times less than she for appearing in the same movie. Upon learning that, Chastain went back to the producers and demanded that co-star’s pay be increased, otherwise she’d walk away from the movie. She was successful - Spencer received a substantial pay bump and the project continued on schedule.

Race and gender in the workplace are currently squarely in the center of our national consciousness. Practically every American industry has seen leaders at the highest levels removed from their jobs because they abused people, neglected responsibilities or acted cruelly to those who report to them.

As I’ve read through the stories, tweets, interviews and discussions on this topic, I’ve realized there’s a theme from the world of improvisation that crosses over directly into this workplace conversation. It’s a concept that seems to underlie all the discussions and deserves to be discussed on its own. That concept? Status.

What is “Status”?

In improvisation, status is the perceived difference in power between two characters. When played for laughs, it can be a terrific tool to show the absurdity of our expectations about two characters and our assumptions about how they will behave.

The movie “Trading Places” is an excellent example of how playing with “status” can create hilarious results. If you haven’t seen the movie (You should! It’s on Netflix…), the premise is that a young Eddie Murphy is picked off the street by two old and crusty stockbrokers. They’ve made a bet over whether or not they can turn any random person into a successful financier. Throughout the movie, Murphy’s character slowly but surely raises his perceived status through miscommunication, embarrassment and outrageous bravado.

Why do I bring this up? The key tool he uses throughout is “Status Transfer.” He’s able to use status expectations to his advantage to improve his stature, wealth and influence. At a more fundamental level, he learns how to do two things: raise his own status and lower the status of others. By the end, he’s become so adept at transferring status to himself that, well...I won’t spoil it!


Status Transfer - Raising your own “Status”

Kat Koppett, an expert in the tools of applied improvisation, discusses status in the workplace in her book, Training to Imagine:

“In the U.S., we eschew the concept of class and power. Everyone is supposed to be created equal, and so that must mean everyone is equal. An awareness of status differences, especially with a small community or team, has come to constitute political incorrectness. Organizations flatten their hierarchies and expect that status differentials will disappear. And perhaps not surprisingly, it is often those with the most power who resist the concept the most strongly. As social science tells us, the privileged are often blind to their privileges.

But make no mistake. Status dynamics exist. All the time, everywhere. What may distinguish one culture from another is what characteristics endow someone with status, which behaviors are expected of individuals with differing status roles, and how stable those roles are... Status can be understood not as something we are, but as something we do. We confer or accept status through our behaviors, and it is those interactions that determine who is perceived as holding the power.”

This idea that status is a behavior, not an endowed trait, is immensely powerful. In an organization, status is constantly shifting, evolving and changing. In one meeting, you may be the highest status person in the room, later that afternoon you may be the lowest status and have to sit quietly while others make decisions and you sit silently.

Luckily, we don’t all have to be comedic geniuses like Eddie Murphy to shift our status in the workplace. There are some simple things that will immediately help to show confidence and raise your status relative to those around you:

  • Pay attention to your physicality - posture and eye contact go a long way towards establishing confidence and respect.

  • Tone of voice - speaking loudly, clearly and without “um’s” and “you knows” demonstrates mastery of content.

  • Calm demeanor - finding ways to stay cool, calm and collected in the face of uncertainty and animosity helps increase your perceived status.


Status Transfer - Raising the “Status” of Others

Unfortunately, there’s only so much we can do on our own to raise our status. Power structures built over decades can’t simply be turned on their head by maintaining eye contact. That’s where high status people must transfer power to lower status individuals in order to empower them. That’s Jessica Chastain’s acting as an ally to demand pay raises for her coworker. That’s the power of the Icelandic government putting checks in place to ensure corporations provide equal pay for equal work. For those of you who typically take on a higher status position in your role (i.e. you’re a holder of power), here are some ways you can transfer your status to those that you manage or oversee:

  • Provide insights and context of what’s going on “at the top” so that your colleagues are armed with accurate information and facts.

  • Provide mentorship or be a peer coach. Seek to mentor colleagues and be a resource who can provide help and assistance.

  • Create Opportunities. Give people the chance to do the work that proves their skills and raises their profile. Give them credit for a well-done task.

  • Speak up when others demean or disrespect others. Make it clear that you won’t stand for a widening of the “status gap” between powerful people in your company and those that report to them.


Let’s Practice!

In these posts I’ll be introducing you to simple group exercises you can facilitate on your own. This month, we’re looking at how to explore the subtle ways we take and give “status” to those around us. The following exercise is something you can do at the beginning of your weekly team check-in meeting or as part of a larger conversation around power dynamics in the workplace.


Skill: Exploring “Status Transfer”

Exercise: “Status Cards”

Time: 10 minutes

Supplies: One deck of playing cards

Number of People: 2-50


Click here for the full instructions