We've all done it -- I certainly have -- when our egos feel threatened. Maybe we see someone much wealthier and think, "Yeah, but I'm a lot better parent." Or we see someone in much better shape and think, "Yeah, but I have a better job." Or we see someone who owns every room she enters and think, "Yeah, but I'm a great operator."

That move is what social psychologists call a status pivot: Focusing on an area where we excel in order to cope with feeling inferior to or threatened by another person's accomplishments.

A status pivot protects us when we're unsure, tentative, or at a perceived disadvantage. "You may be good at that," we think, "but I'm good at this."

Oddly enough, status pivoting can also be proactive.

For example, a study published in Journal of Economic Research that analyzed vehicles with bumper stickers found that owners of midprice vehicles were nearly three times as likely as owners of luxury cars to signal status in ways unrelated to wealth; their bumper stickers highlighted things like extreme sports, athletic achievements, travel to exotic locations, and parenting.

In another experiment, the researchers gave reunion attendees the choice of two phone covers. One read, "Best job ever! Congrats on your success!" The other read, "Best (mom or dad) ever! So lucky you're my (mom or dad)!"

The majority of attendees who were told a classmate was going to be named the "Most Successful Professional of the Year" chose the "great mom or dad" phone cover. Since they knew their professional success had already been weighed and measured and found wanting compared with a classmate's, their instinct was to status pivot to a different achievement domain.

In those cases, status pivoting is like armor that provides a layer of protection from vulnerability. Like: 

  • The guy who joins a group ride with younger, fitter cyclists and status pivots by saying, "I'm Marcus, the CEO of (Cool Startup) Inc."
  • The guy who status pivots by prefacing his comments during a meeting, "I was up late helping my daughter with her homework, so hopefully what I'm about to propose makes sense." 
  • The guy who status pivots at a user conference by saying, "We haven't collected nearly as much customer data as the rest of you, but that's because we focus on establishing relationships with select clients."

Sum it all up, and status pivoting is an instinctive defense mechanism: An emotional reaction to a threat to our ego.

Which is understandable.

But is also a problem.

Over time, status pivoting leads us to narrow our focus to our strengths; that way we stay safe. The more we status pivot -- the more armor we put on -- the more we tend to hide our weaknesses, or failings, or areas for improvement.

Especially from ourselves. 

Professional success is great, but you can still work to be a better parent. Or friend. Or to be in better shape. Or to improve in any other area of your life you see fit. "Personal" success is great, but you can still work to be a better business owner. Or leader. Or employee. Or whatever professional path you choose. 

As Inc. colleague Justin Bariso writes, emotional intelligence is the ability to make your emotions work for you, not against you. 

In this case, that means taking a second when you're about to mentally status pivot -- bumper stickers and qualifying comments aside, most of our status pivots are thoughts and not actions -- and ask yourself a few simple questions instead:

  • "Is someone else's accomplishment or status something I really care about?"  If the answer is no, just be happy for them. Success is never a zero-sum game. If the answer is yes ...
  • "Am I willing to put in the effort to improve?" That's the key question; there are plenty of things we would like to be that we aren't willing to work to be. If the answer is an honest no, again, let it go and just be happy for them. Their accomplishment does not diminish you. But if the answer is yes ...
  • "Since this does matter to me, what steps will I take to improve?" Instead of status pivoting, use that energy to create a plan. Better yet, ask the other person for tips or advice. (Asking for advice is a compliment; it implicitly shows you respect their skills, experience, or accomplishments.)

Do that, and you let your emotions work for you, not against you.

Because the only comparison that matters is the one between the person you are today  and the person you are working to become.