In theory: Status anxiety

These are anxiety-inducing times. We worry about the property ladder, about the credit crunch, about whether or not we should take long-haul flights. But a more insidious worry is 'status anxiety'. It's a term associated with economist Fred Hirsch, who, in his 1976 book Social Limits to Growth, posited something called the 'positional economy'.

Roughly speaking, the scarcer something is, the more desirable it becomes - as soon as it becomes common, its social worth plummets. This is why celebrities fight over the most outrageously expensive handbags. They want to be the first person to be seen with the latest model because as soon as other celebrities get hold of it their status is zero.

So what do handbags and stars have to do with charity management? Status anxiety applies as much to your career as to your life outside work. The very structure of a charity means you might have many workers on the ground, but there will only ever be one chief executive and a handful of senior managers. The numbers mean that only a very few get the top jobs. The difficulty in attaining such positions is - for the careerists among you - their lure. Management consultants call it 'the pyramid'.

Cunning managers can and do capitalise on our workplace insecurities. As Alain de Botton wrote in his 2004 book Status Anxiety, we all worry what others think of us, about whether we're judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. There's no denying that, if one of your colleagues gets a promotion and you're passed over, your congratulations are not entirely heartfelt. Scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a degree of jealousy. Some managers will play ambitious workers off against each other in the hope of inducing better performance and a jockeying of position that will mean a better motivated team.

The trick, it seems, is not to succumb to the pressure and work yourself to an early grave by lusting after something that is unlikely you will ever possess.

- Emma De Vita is editor of the books pages on Management Today.

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