The Paradox of Success: How success can breed failure

Losing the edge

Like me, most people have a list of their top sports movies of all time, which gets updated every now and then. The Rocky series of movies featuring Sylvester Stallon as the inimitable Rocky Balboa is right there at the top. The series is filled with explosive passion and intensity, and a scene from Rocky III immediately came to mind when I was thinking of a way to begin this article.

“You lost that fight, Rock, for all the wrong reasons. You lost your edge…You didn’t look hungry,” Apollo Creed told Rocky Balboa after his loss to Clubber Lang. “Now, when we fought, you had that eye of the tiger, man; the edge! And now you gotta get it back, and the way to get it back is to go back to the beginning. You know what I mean?”

The humiliating defeat came at a time when Rocky was on top of the world and life couldn’t have been any better. It came after he had become famous throughout the world, on the back of ten consecutive wins and him having landed lucrative endorsement contracts. It seemed that with his success, Rocky had grown ‘soft’, he was no longer the fighter he once was.

The above story is told in many iterations across numerous disciplines. The common saying in music circles is that many artists will fail to live up to their first album because there is a drop-off in intensity or hunger. It is often said that many athletes often fail to live up to the performance of their breakout season because they get comfortable.

Of course, this flies in the face of the popular belief that success begets success. It is not an unfounded assumption that success sets the foundation of more success, researchers have proven over and over the performance-enhancing effects of psychological momentum. But, this is the other side of the coin.

If unchecked, success can lead to bad habits that encourage complacency. The popular saying is that one loses the edge, the intensity, that helped them achieve great success. Click To Tweet

Failing to learn in times of success

In 2011, Behavioral scientist Francesca Gino and economist Gary P. Pisano explored what causes a lot of companies that once dominated their industries to slide into decline. They published it under the title, “Why leaders don’t learn from success.” In the paper, they highlighted three major reasons for this.

1) What psychologists call fundamental attribution errors. “When we succeed, we’re likely to conclude that our talents and our current model or strategy are the reasons. We also give short shrift to the part that environmental factors and random events may have played,” they wrote.

In sports, some coaches will often attribute success only on their tactics while not appreciating the role played by the players. Tactics need to be executed by the right people. This is why one can’t just copy and paste another team’s tactical approach and expect success. Then there is individual player brilliance, which often turns the tide.

Players themselves also fall prey to attribution bias. Many will overestimate their impact or underestimate the role played by their teammates. Then there is luck. Every now and then a team will get lucky.

2) The second issue they raised was overconfidence bias, “Success increases our self-assurance. Faith in ourselves is a good thing, of course, but too much of it can make us believe we don’t need to change anything.”

3) The final impediment to learning when teams are riding the wave of success is the failure-to-ask-why syndrome — the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance systematically. “When executives and their teams suffer from this syndrome, they don’t ask the tough questions that would help them expand their knowledge or alter their assumptions about how the world works.”

The cost of success

Success comes at a steep psychological price for many people.

The story of champions of the previous season returning the following year with essentially the same players, yet so often suffering a drop in performance is all too common. In certain circles, commentators and analysts refer to it as the ‘curse of the defending champions’. But the truth is, it’s not a curse and they’re not really the same players.

They have different expectations for themselves and the people around them. They interact with each other differently, changing the dynamics of the dressing room.

After a successful season or tournament, players change. They cease to be the same people who went into the season or the tournament. They think differently, speak differently and behave differently. Click To Tweet

In their paper, “Masters of the Universe: How Power and Accountability Influence Self-Serving Decisions Under Moral Hazard,” M. Pitesa and S. Thau, demonstrate this by pointing out that once some people reach a certain level of success, they fall prey to self-serving attribution bias. This bias makes us more likely to connect positive outcomes to our internal disposition and negative outcomes to factors beyond our control, or teammates. For example, we’re more likely to attribute a new business win to the quality of our presentation pitch, and a loss to the current financial climate or a client’s poor sense of value. It’s a natural protection mechanism designed to maintain our confidence.

This bias creates a barrier to effective collaboration and teamwork, which can impact overall team performance. Not only that, but it also erodes existing trust and team culture. Success can also serve as a distraction that prevents them from performing at their best. Some athletes may be overcome by the weight of expectation from others around them, suddenly everyone expects miracles and lifechanging performances from them.

In The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner demonstrates that true power, influence, is given by those around us. That whether we are at work, out with friends, in encounters with strangers, or with our children, the very skills that enable us to gain respect and esteem are corrupted when we are feeling powerful.

Because once we have that power, the power paradox strikes us with full force: the very practices that enable us to rise in power vanish in our experience of power. We gain and maintain power through empathy, but in our experience of power, we lose our focus on others. We gain and maintain power through giving, but when we are feeling powerful, we act in self-gratifying and often greedy ways. Dignifying others with expressions of gratitude is essential to achieving enduring power, but once we are feeling powerful, we become rude and offensive.

Sometimes success makes athletes lose their grounding values and opt for more self-serving behaviours that undo the value of the behaviours that brought them success. Instead of bring team-oriented, they adopt attitudes that make them… Click To Tweet

In the same vein, in team sports, the viewing public, the fans and spectators, will always pick out their preferred stars in a successful team, and they will celebrate them. But regardless of individual ability and brilliance, those stars were given success through a collective effort. However, those stars are more likely to exhibit more self-serving behaviour, acting as if the world owes them something.

“That’s the power paradox: As I rise and become a star, I become more selfish,” says Keltner, referring to athletes. “I sleep with more women on the road, I want bigger contracts, and I speak offensively to my teammates. So the very experience of power reduces the likelihood you’ll have team-oriented people.”

Paul K. Piff, Dacher Keltner and their colleagues conducted numerous studies for their paper, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.” In one of their experiments, they positioned a student at a clearly marked pedestrian crosswalk on a busy street near campus. California law requires drivers to stop for pedestrians. Nearby, other students recorded which cars stopped and which didn’t. They divided the cars into categories from least expensive to most expensive. Among drivers in the most expensive cars, more than fifty per cent blew through the crosswalk. Drivers in the cheapest cars? Stopped every time.

What the demonstrates is that once we feel on top of the world, we are less likely going to think of others and become more self-centred. We cease to be good teammates and yet expect teammates to be good to us. Not only that, but we are less inclined to being held accountable for our actions and taking responsibility for our decisions. Superstars are more likely to abandon the behaviours that brought the team success, the small everyday actions that create strong cultures and spur the team forward.

If left unchecked, the effects of success can undo the foundations that brought them success, and instead of success breeding more success, it spawns failure. Click To Tweet

Success inertia

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” Henri Bergson Click To Tweet

One of the other problems brought on by success is what is known as success inertia. Success inertia is when teams get stuck in modes of thinking and working that brought them success, effectively becoming prisoners of their own success. They neglect to upgrade their thinking, strategies, tactics and combinations, preferring to stick with ‘the formula that works.’

Sometimes success reinforces exploitation of existing skills, tactics, strategies and personnel, crowding out exploration of new ones, hindering the development and exploration of new strategies, tactics and talent.

In 2014, Catherine L. Wang, Chaminda Senaratne and Mohammed Rafiq published a paper, “In Success Traps, Dynamic Capabilities and Firm Performance.” In the study, done at the University of London, they emphasize how success can often be more of a trap than a springboard. This is because successful teams often fall prey to a set way of doing things that “gets results.” The result is they become more rigid and less resilient.

Instead of trying to find new solutions to problems, they are most likely to stick with what has worked previously. Instead of venturing into the unknown, they favour the familiar and prefer what is established over what is new.

The study by Wang and her colleagues reveals that teams that stick to their successful ways have real difficulties sensing shifts and new and divergent knowledge, and because of this, they fail to effectively respond to changes in their environment and providing innovative responses to this change.

“When firms have successfully adapted to the environment, they tend to perceive this as a rationale for current organizational logic, norms and practices, and hence become less open to learning from new knowledge and less prepared to adapt when the environment changes,” they write.

Sometimes success makes teams rigid and less responsive to changes around them. Instead of agility and adaptability, they simply stick with "tried and tested" methods, favouring the familiar over exploring new possibilities. Click To Tweet

If left unchecked, the effects of success can undo the foundations that brought them success, and instead of success breeding more success, it spawns failure.