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Stars tend to fall harder (and derail more)

May 18, 2020

Jennifer Carson Marr and Stefan Thau did some worthwhile research on human performance this year (see the BPS website for the full article). They called it Falling from Great (and Not-So-Great) Heights: How Initial Status Position Influences Performance after Status Loss. Academy of Management Journal.

They found that "compared with lower-ranked people, those higher up the pecking order find it more difficult to stomach a drop in status, and their performance can take a bigger nosedive as a result.

"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." Exactly right in my view and from much of my experience.

"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. Perversely, a strong identification with their status could actually make it harder to hold onto it."

This seems to support the emerging thinking I've been having on the paradox of Mental Toughness vs Vulnerability to Debilitating Trauma/Derailment. You'd think these two things would be negatively correlated (go in different directions), but I reckon they are positively correlated more than we'd like to think, and for our high performance 'heroes' especially. I'm sure the solution is linked to updating self-definitions of personal identity beyond conventional 'Achiever' thinking (ref. Torbert and Rooke). Which makes developing long-term high performance partly a spiritual or transpersonal exercise.

It's amazing how much of the work I'm currently doing touches on this paradox - a fascinating area.