When and why does status threat at work bring out the best and the worst in us? A temporal social comparison theory

Susan Reh*, Niels Van Quaquebeke, Christian Tröster, Steffen R. Giessner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
59 Downloads (Pure)


This paper seeks to explain when and why people respond to status threat at work with behaviors oriented toward either self-improvement or interpersonal harming. To that end, we extend the established static social comparison perspective on status threat. Specifically, we introduce the notion of temporal proximity of status threat, which is informed by five temporal social comparison markers. We argue that people construe distal future status gaps as a challenge (and thus show self-improvement-oriented responses), but construe a more proximal status gap as a threat (and thus engage in negative interpersonal behaviors). Further, we introduce three factors of uncertainty that may render the underlying temporal comparison less reliable, and thereby less useful for guiding one's response. Overall, our temporal social comparison theory integrates and extends current theorizing on status threat in organizations by fully acknowledging the dynamic nature of social comparisons. Plain Language Summary Employees often compare themselves to others to evaluate their status. If they perceive that their status is at threat or risk losing status, they engage in behaviors to prevent status loss. These behaviors can be positive, aimed at improving one's position or they can be negative, aimed at harming others. This paper develops a theoretical framework to examine when employees engage in more challenge- vs. threat-oriented behaviors. We argue that an important question how employees react to status threat is its temporal proximity—will an employee's status be threatened in the near versus distal future? We propose that the more distal (vs. proximate) the status threat is, the more employees gravitate towards challenge- and less threat-oriented behaviors. But how do employees know when a status threat occurs in the future? We argue that employees will compare their past status trajectories to co-workers’ status trajectories to mentally extrapolate the temporal proximity of such a threat. More specifically, we propose five characteristics (temporal markers) of social comparison trajectories that inform employees about the temporal proximity: their relative current position, the relative velocity and acceleration of their status trajectory, their relative mean status level, and their relative minimum and maximum status. Moreover, we suggest that employees’ conclusions from these markers are weakened by uncertainty in the “data stream” of social comparison information over time, that is, the length of the time span available, the amount of interruptions in this data stream, and the number of fluctuations in their own and others’ status trajectories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-267
Number of pages27
JournalOrganizational Psychology Review
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022

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Publisher Copyright: © The Author(s) 2022.


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