Setbacks Hit All-Stars the Hardest

Individuals with high-status careers may seem to have the resources and connections they need to recover if those careers turn south.
Setbacks Hit All-Stars the Hardest

But research finds that their performance suffers even more than that of lower-status workers after experiencing significant setbacks.

High-status individuals rely on their positions to bolster their self-worth. When that disappears, they can lose confidence, say assistant professors of organizational behavior Jennifer Carson Marr of Georgia Institute of Technology’s Ernest Scheller Jr. College of Business in Atlanta and Stefan Thau of INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.

Marr and Thau conducted an examination of salary arbitration in Major League Baseball. They found that, in the MLB, when baseball players did not receive their proposed salaries during arbitration, those with the highest status experienced the greatest decline in performance the following year. Low-status players saw little change in their quality of play.

The pair also conducted two experiments in which they randomly assigned high or low status to participating students. They then set up conditions in which high-status participants lost that status arbitrarily. The researchers found that those who had held and then lost high status performed worse on a word exercise than other participants. The only exception was a group of high-status participants who completed a self-affirming exercise at the beginning of the experiment, which helped offset the perceived threat to their self-worth.

Lead author Marr suggests that those who experience significant setbacks in their careers take steps to bolster their self-worth—they should take time off, if possible, or even change jobs if they feel unfulfilled or disrespected in their current roles.

“Over time, individuals find ways to affirm themselves and come back,” she says. “Steve Jobs is a prime example of that. Maybe we’ll see the same thing with [New York Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez] now that he has a year off courtesy of a Major League Baseball arbitration. He’s talking about coming back better than ever—and, who knows, if he’s learned his lesson, he just might.”

“Falling from great (and not so great) heights: Initial status position influences performance after status loss” appears in the February/ March 2014 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.