Every workplace has its social hierarchy and you're under constant scrutiny to prove yourself to your boss and your peers. As companies increasingly adopt 360-degree performance reviews and peer feedback, the opinion of others has never mattered more.

How you think others see you shapes how you see yourself.  New research suggests it may also affect how your immune system responds to a virus. As winter approaches and with it, the flu season, more employees are at risk of getting sick. Changing your social behavior might help you lower your risk.

"Feeling" inferior raises your risk of suffering from a cold.

Being made to feel inferior in a social hierarchy triggers chronic stress, which make you susceptible to catching a virus. 

In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, almost 200 healthy men and women were given a cold or flu virus directly into their noses. Those who felt inferior to their peers were more likely to succumb to the virus.

Intriguingly, it can also increase your suffering once you catch the virus, because it increases inflammation. 

In a smaller experiment, 31 young, healthy females reacted with significantly more inflammation when receiving negative feedback about their character and personality, if they felt socially inferior to others to begin with. 

Stress and inflammation have an interesting relationship. You become slightly inflamed every time you get stressed but the stress hormone cortisol switches off this inflammation. If you are under chronic stress, this "off" switch stops working, so if you encounter a stressor, it inflames you more than it should.

Who might be most at risk of feeling inferior this 'flu season?

If you're treated like a junior member in your team's social hierarchy and are repeatedly passed over for that promotion, you might not see yourself making it to the top of the ladder like everyone else.

How your colleagues treat you -- whether they put you down or lift you up, makes a difference, too. Your self-esteem plays an important role.

Receiving self-oriented, negative feedback that labels your weaknesses as inherent to your character and hence permanent, rather than action-oriented, negative feedback that makes your weaknesses changeable, reinforces a perception of having a lower social status than your peers. 

All the other usual rules of leadership also apply. If you're left out of key decisions, if your role is not clearly defined, if you think you're not being rewarded for your efforts or being treated unfairly, you're more likely to feel your social status is lower than everyone else's. 

    Taking action. 

    There is no magic pill for avoiding a cold, but removing yourself from situations that make you feel you're at the bottom of the social hierarchy can help. Avoid people who put you down. If you're leading a team and want full attendance this season, doing these three things might help:

    1. Minimize negative feedback. Be extra sensitive with delivering negative feedback. Positive feedback directed at self-identity increases self-esteem.
    2. Define everyone's roles. This makes employees feel important and valued, as their individual contribution (and hence, status) is recognized.
    3. Have a zero-tolerance policy for office politics. Office politics creates a toxic environment. It's especially dangerous if there is a real toxin -- the double stranded RNA from the flu virus -- floating around. 
    Published on: Nov 13, 2017