Star performers suffer more than most from a loss in status

Tiger Woods experienced a loss of status in 2009.
(He didn’t win another major until 2012.)

Compared with lower-ranked people, those higher up the pecking order find it more difficult to stomach a drop in status, and their performance takes a bigger nosedive as a result. This is the verdict of a new article that presents experimental work, together with a more unusual source of evidence: major league baseball arbitration, in which players and clubs contest the players’ worth.

In many ways, individuals with high status are sitting pretty: more likely to receive praise, support, and positive influence from others; more likely to have positive life outcomes and perform better at work. You might expect them to be armed with the resources to cope with a threatening situation, such as being sidelined or demoted, and many psychologists would back you up.

But Jennifer Marr and Stefan Thau predicted that a status drop may have deeper repercussions for high-status individuals because their identity is likely to be more tied to their status, and identity threats suck up psychological resources and make focus harder.

Their first study examined 186 instances of baseball “final-offer arbitration” – a last-ditch contract renegotiation where the player and his club each make a proposal of his true worth for a third party to select between. In this adversarial situation, a club’s case often involves an indictment of the player’s health, team spirit, and temperament. A decision in favour of the club’s case therefore reflects a real status loss for the player. After controlling for player past performance and team results, Marr and Thau found that players ranked as high-status (based on awards and selection for All-Star Games) experienced a larger slump in their on-field performance following unfavourable arbitration.

Follow-up experimental work had participants recruited from a university pool interact in groups before completing a solo task (for example, some of them had to propose adjectives to describe the taste of a chocolate chip cookie). Between the group work and the solo challenge, some participants were told they’d sunk in the estimation of their teammates. This news led to poorer performance specifically for those participants who’d previously seen themselves as top dog, thanks to some rigged feedback they received earlier. When this status drop was followed by a positive self-affirmation exercise, those in the high status condition didn’t slump so badly on the final task, supporting the idea that the adverse effect is due to identity threat.

Taken together these findings suggest that when a high status person takes a tumble, a vicious cycle may result, with poor performance making further status drops possible. This is most likely for those who haven’t earned their status from superior ability and effort: once toppled, poseurs and Machiavellians may quickly slide into obsolescence. Legitimate high-status figures, with a track record of commitment and performance arguably deserve our attention and support. They should know that, perversely, a strong identification with their status could actually make it harder to hold onto it.

Jennifer Carson Marr and Stefan Thau (2014). Falling from Great (and Not-So-Great) Heights: How Initial Status Position Influences Performance after Status Loss. Academy of Management Journal.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.