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Speaking at Princeton’s commencement, Michael Lewis encouraged graduates to understand that a fortunate birth led to their Princeton degrees.

Instead of feeling entitled, they should use their good fortune well.  His conclusion was, “Never forget: In the nation’s service.   In the service of all nations.”

I love that.

Lewis cites a Berkeley experiment.  Researchers assigned students into gender-segregated groups of three, arbitrarily anointed a leader, and gave the group a problem-solving task.

Midway through the session, they brought the students a plate bearing 4 cookies.   Consistently, the group leader ate the 4th cookie.

Lewis’ point: it took about 30 minutes to entitle the leader enough to take the last cookie.   (I’m sure it’s more complicated; mixed gender groups would have been interesting.  But I digress.)

To me, it’s not remarkable that the faux leader took the cookie.   It’s that 66% of the test subjects didn’t.

At work, I call this the power of office.  Titles matter, even to people who don’t want to care about them.  Even in organizations that want less “hierarchy.”

New managers can discount the impact title adds to their words and actions, and often to their detriment.

In the early 90s, I was a young client relationship manager in a firm that employed hundreds of people in phone banks, speaking to investors about their accounts.   Some employees were career customer service people, others were entry level.  We had the NYC complement of actors, artists and musicians; due to a lousy economy, some people were rumored to hold law degrees and PhDs.

The power of office was hammered home one day when I brought a client through the phone center on a tour.   Scott, a knowledgeable supervisor, made a presentation on our new technology.   I asked what I thought was a low-stakes question, and he didn’t know the answer.   Instead of saying that he’d find out and get back to us — as I would have expected — he turned beet red, stammered, and looked like he might cry.

I smoothed it over on the spot by saying that we’d get back to the client, and moved on.  Later, I found out that I had been part of one of Scott’s worst days at work.  Ever.

I had caused it.

When I looked at this group of employees, and I saw myself and my friends; I just had a different job.  They looked at me and saw the “Vice President”.   I was The Man, and I couldn’t change that.

These days, I hear from founders and leaders in young companies on the fallout of having assigned people titles — whether it’s Manager, Director, or Padawan.

Some who don’t get the title feel brushed aside, demeaned, demoted…maybe even demotivated.   Those with the title don’t understand why people they see as peers and friends feel this way.

This experiment gives insight to this experience.   The people who don’t get the title don’t feel “entitled.”   The people with the title may not get it — like me, many years ago, they may not see their impact.

Leaders can manage this, to an extent.   In a young company, you can hold to a flat title structure for a while — and yet, sooner or later, you’ll recruit someone who comes in wanting a particular title, and you’re off to the races.

It’s more critical for founders, leaders, and new managers to understand the math.

You + Your Title/Position = The Power of Office.

Sooner or later, you’ll see it.

It might be innocuous:  you’ll wear crazy socks to work, and the next week you’ll see crazy socks everywhere.   Or you might find out that someone launched a project based on an off-handed comment you made in passing — this one could turn out well, or not so much.

Whether you like it or not, your words — and your actions — will matter more than you know.

cookies! by Flickr’s ginnerobot, used under Creative Commons license.