Traffic signal at Tamil Nadu. (c) 2011 Thamizhpparithi Maari (CC BY SA 3.0)

Signaling, Legitimacy and Reputation: Another Problem High-Potentials Must Overcome

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Underachievers 1 Comment

Everything that you do, say and show signals information about you to others. This idea of Signaling comes from zoology / biology. It’s about how a fit male peacock (for example) lets potential mates know that he has the goods, moreso than others. The signal is his extensive plumage.

The trick to signaling is that it has to cost you something. For the peacock, having a bright and big plumage means that he is easier prey for predators. He stands out and has a harder time moving. From an adaptation point of view, you’d think that this wouldn’t work. It certainly makes the peacock more likely to get eaten rather than less. But this cost to the signal makes it worthwhile. Females know that a male with large plumage has been fit enough to produce it and fit enough to escape predation. Good genes.

(You can argue that something as primal is going on with the “Bad Boy” syndrome. By committing crimes and not getting caught, the male is signaling that he has the goods. Women are attracted to him for an animal, primal reason: he has powerful genes. It’s silly, if you think about it, but that’s the point. We do a lot of things without thinking. We’re less than angels.)

Your signaling in the job market may actually be working against you. Sometimes the signaling goes awry and that’s what I want to address.

Extremely high-potentials (what I have previously identified using Jaques’s term “high-mode) often need to appear less than what they are in order to avoid preemptive strikes from those in authority over them. Even in school, EHPs can be bigger in time horizon than their teachers. The teachers see this threat and move to neutralize it through social ostracization, labeling or contempt. (Let’s raise this with our points on Ole Anthony’s recorded behaviours later.)

Here’s an analogy:

When I was in middle-school, the hot thing among us geeks was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series. In it, I first saw the classic illustration of gravitational warping of time and space. A large rubber sheet was stretched in a frame. On it were different spherical objects (a softball, a shooter marble, etc.) with different weights. Each one would deform the rubber mat, stretching it down with its weight. Add something comparatively very heavy — say a bowling ball — and it will stretch the mat so far down that all the other objects will start falling towards it.

Great example and I’ve never forgotten it.

It’s also what happens psychically with people of different size. And future potential size plays a part in this, although I haven’t teased out exactly what.

When these High Potentials step into the room, the room deforms around them psychically. By “psychically” I don’t mean that they read leaves. It’s just that their psyche seems to unbalance it. They are the largest person in the room, often by a large margin. People can tell this, at a perhaps unconscious level. They are immediately a danger to the social structures and systems, whether they want to be or not. They are so often the largest person in the room that they have learned to dissemble, to look like they are not threatening.

At its worst, this dissembling looks like insanity. They develop nervous tics, strange ways of talking and bizarre dress. This does indeed make them seem inocuous. Unfortunately, it also looks just like insane people, so you have to have some discernment to tell the difference.

They then try to look like Normal People for things like job interviews and dates. It doesn’t work: they are concealing over concealing and they can’t do it well.

Which brings me to the real problem. It has to do with being able to look like what you need to look like in the moment. Most underemployed EHPs don’t signal properly. They have those semi-maladaptive obfuscation responses signaling that they are nuts. They try to signal like others in their status (which is currently two or three levels too low in many cases) and fail, over-stating status. They accumulate certifications, education, and other external signals to no avail. What’s going on?

Obviously, most of their signaling stinks. It is not signaling “I’m an extremely high-potential who is going places” but more “I’m needy and slightly insane: please help me!” Bad signal.

[Aside: There’s some argument over whether or not countersignaling — where high status individuals stop signaling their status, while middle status individuals over signal — occurs.

Phillips, Damon J. and Zuckerman, Ezra W. 2001. “Middle-Status Conformity: Theoretical Restatement and Empircal Demonstration In Two Markets”. American Journal of Sociology, 107(2): 379-429.

Feltovich, Nick; Harbaugh, Richmond; & To, Ted. 2002. “Too cool for school? Signalling and countersignalling“. RAND Journal of Economics, 33(4): 630â??649.

Deephouse, David L. and Carter, Suzanne M. 2005. “An Examination of Differences Between Organizational Legitimacy and Organizational Reputation”. Journal of Management Studies 42(2):n 329-360.

End Aside]

The trick is learning to signal (and counter-signal) properly.

Tough work.

But doable. You really can learn to signal what you want to signal. You learned how to signal that you were not dangerous. You can now learn to signal that you are a threat.

(Yes, I’m re-reading Goffman. So back to Presentation In Everyday Life!)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]

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