Status and event design

We all like to feel important some of the time. Having status in some of our human relationships is important to our psychological well-being. As psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains:

“We desire status because it suggests that others value us, that we have a place of importance in the group and are therefore connected to the group.”
—Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.

The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.

Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.

Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)

2 thoughts on “Status and event design

  1. Hi Adrian.

    Do you think that perhaps one of the issues is that people see being a ‘learner’ as ‘lower status’? This is probably why so many promising leaders stagnate in their careers, as they feel it is below them to continue learning, and that they should just have all the answers.

    Perhaps the best way to solve the ‘higher-lower’ status of conferences is to acknowledge that the learners in the room as equally high status as the speakers – I’ve found that in reality they can often hold more senior positions anyway – and create an atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to see each other as equals with important lessons to be learned from everyone.

    The speakers could then be considered more as facilitators of interesting discussions rather than having all the answers – a status that frequently leads to delegate disappointment I’ve found.

    Anyway, just some thoughts – an interesting post as always!

    1. Mark, I agree with you that most “people see being a ‘learner’ as ‘lower status’.” It’s hard to avoid believing this, since it’s drummed into all our heads by years of school where the (adult) teacher at the front of the room clearly is higher status than the (children) students. A few days in a different environment is not going to change this assumption, which is still rampant in society (“celebrities” are more “important” than you and I; politicians and heads of large companies wield far more power and influence than the vast majority of people.)

      Peer conferences, by giving everyone appropriate opportunities to be “at the front of the room”, provide a healthier and more useful environment for sharing and learning together. As a facilitator, I could “acknowledge” learning as being as high status as teaching as the start of an event, but I don’t think that would make any difference if I went on to use a traditional conference format. The power of peer conferences is not in the acknowledgement of status equality, but the practical demonstration during the process that most if not all participants have significant contributions to make to the learning, connections, engagement, and action that routinely occur.

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