How Office Popularity Is Just Like High School

Unfortunately, it really matters.

Maybe, in high school, the A-listers all sat together at a lunch table far, far away from yours. Maybe the social pecking order kept you off the cheerleading squad. Maybe the only thing more painful than not being asked to the prom was your mother’s suggestion that you go with your friends. Ouch to all of it.

If your workplace sometimes feels like you’re reliving high school, that’s because you are, said Mitch Prinstein, an adolescent psychology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.

Psychological research has found that the same social dynamics that we remember so unfondly from adolescence are pretty much still in play and continue to govern our lives as adults, Prinstein told HuffPost.

It may not be called “popularity” anymore, though. Prinstein uses the terms “likability” and “status” to define what made so many of us miserable in high school. Likability is a person’s ability to make others feel valued, included and happy, he said, while status is determined by the attention, power, influence, and visibility a person has. Anyone who went to high school or secondary school can distinguish between these two forms of popularity.

Even as adults, our position within the social hierarchy still matters more than we may have even thought ― or hoped ― it would, he said.

So how does this play out in the workplace?

Likability matters for advancement.

Obviously, the traits that determine who rises in a workplace go beyond personality and include many other factors. But people who are well-liked are more likely than their equally qualified counterparts to be hired and promoted, and even earn higher salaries, research has shown. They are also more likely to feel satisfied at work, happier at home, and less likely to suffer from addictions, depression and anxiety, Prinstein wrote in an article for the BBC.

Have you ever sat in a meeting and observed how one guy just seems more comfortable and relaxed than everyone else, how his ideas always grab the boss’ attention and are the ones most likely to be implemented? There’s an excellent chance he’s someone who was a leader in high school. Now he’s on track to being a leader at your company.

Putting aside any jealousy of his ease and success, you actually really like the guy. Why? Prinstein says it’s because he manages to make everyone feel valued and included, and people with high likability make the best team leaders.

But there was another group that sat at that A-listers’ lunch table in high school. They were considered popular inasmuch as everyone knew them, but Prinstein calls them the “controversials.” They oozed self-confidence, but built their following in a way that was the polar opposite of the likables’ approach: They were the bullies who mocked the failures of others as a way of pumping themselves up. People were afraid to cross them for fear they would be publicly humiliated or made fun of. They had “status” in high school, but that’s not to say everyone liked them.

President Donald Trump is a controversial who focuses on status, noted Prinstein. Trump puts people and other nations down to inflate his own self-worth, often using insults. “Even his tweets are designed to make others seem ineffectual and weak. And by contrast, he assumes people will see him as strong and effective,” Prinstein said.

A controversial who moves up the career ladder generally does so because he or she manages up very well, said Prinstein. That said, they aren’t much fun to work for. They bully the people who work for them, condescend to their peers and keep underlings in line by demeaning them ― often publicly. They get hired because they can be quite affable, turning on the charm when it needs to be turned on. They get promoted because they recognize and deliver what the boss wants: results. If you have the misfortune to work for a controversial, you probably are updating your resume.

There are some jobs, however, where controversials shine. “A controversial may be the ideal boss on a factory assembly line, but he wouldn’t be a good fit for a position that requires collaboration and teamwork,” said Prinstein.

The good news is that many workplaces today put a premium on teamwork. They value collaboration and emphasize having a friendly work environment.

Are you a “neglected” or “rejected?” And what does it mean at the office?

Prinstein’s research found that a teen’s likability ultimately places her or him into one of five categories: average, accepted, neglected, rejected, or the aforementioned controversial. About 50 percent of teens are average, he told HuffPost, which means they are liked by some, disliked by others, and occupy a middle ground where they have good friends and don’t worry too much about bullying.

Kids who endured far more torture in the high school acceptance game were the neglected or rejected ones. Neglected teens are neither disliked nor liked. Their peers have no opinion of them and mostly act as if they are invisible.

Being invisible in the workplace isn’t always such a great thing. Flying below the radar and not making any personal connections puts neglecteds at risk of being passed over for new roles and challenges. Neglecteds should seek out a mentor who can champion their work to others.

On the plus side, neglecteds are the most adaptable workers, Prinstein said. They stay quiet and listen. They are good to move from one group to the other because they adapt readily.

The rejected teens in high school were the people who were more disliked than liked. Rejecteds in the workplace can have weak or spotty social skills when it comes to collaboration and communication, and they may be bullies. They frequently say the wrong thing. But that aside, they can be valuable employees who accurately perceive the needs of others, are sensitive to concerns, and show empathy.

So, long after you graduate, does popularity seriously still really matter?

“Totally,” said Prinstein. “No single employee can ascend the ranks of the corporate ladder without being attuned to popularity; no manager will maintain an engaged, cohesive team without understanding popularity dynamics; and every company’s success depends on its ability to fulfill our basic human instincts to feel liked, valued, and included.”

The good news? Prinstein said we often self-select our careers and normally wind up in the right spots based on who we are.