Popularity Pays

But a deeper lesson of new research is that everyone can be more socially savvy.

Glinda the Good Witch was right.

In the musical Wicked, she sings that “It’s all about popular:”

Celebrated heads of state,

or specially great communicators—

did they have brains or knowledge?

Don’t make me laugh!

They were POPULAR!

Please! It’s all about popular.

It’s not about aptitude,

it’s the way you’re viewed.

Now the nation’s premier group of economists have backed up her claim when it comes to compensation. And there’s news here organizations can use.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded that people in the top 20 percent of the popularity distribution in high school earned 10 percent more than those in the bottom 20 percent, nearly 40 years after graduation.

This isn’t just a confirmation that popular kids are destined to succeed. The study treats popularity not as an innate trait, but a sign of learning to build social capital. As the Wall Street Journal puts it:

“[P]opularity pays because those who learn to play the game in high school are figuring out what they need to know to succeed when they enter the workplace. The report suggests schools may want to join their academic mission with one that helps students build their social skills.”

This study fits into a broader literature, including Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed, recognizing the power of character and social intelligence.

Factors like self-control, curiosity and conscientiousness not only help individuals succeed but help teams and organizations thrive.

Both kids and grown-ups can develop these habits. Could companies offer training in social intelligence skills, or at least promote them? Like the way retailer Zappos has made demonstrating its culture 50 percent of employee reviews?

Not everyone can be the most popular. But we can fashion organizations and a society where more people know how to connect with each other effectively.

Maybe we ought to revise Glinda’s lyrics slightly. Instead of “It’s not about aptitude,
it’s the way you’re viewed,” they should be “it’s about aptitude about the way you’re viewed.”

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.