The Downside of Success? It Can Lead to Failure Apextalk

In our research, we found that success comes with a trap: It can cause teams to rely more on their most influential members or stars—in other words, the hierarchy of the team becomes steeper. This makes the team less adaptable and more likely to get stuck in old ways of doing things. And, ultimately, it increases the chances of failure the next time around.

Ball hogs

To investigate how team dynamics worked, we started by looking outside the world of business—at basketball. In our study, published in Organization Science, we examined competitive teams in the National Basketball Association across more than 60,000 games, spanning 34 years. Leveraging motion-tracking-camera data, we examined how teams’ passing patterns and shot distributions changed after wins and losses.

We found that after winning, teams became more reliant on their star players. Teams passed the ball about 6% more to the stars, and their shot distribution skewed 15% more toward the big performers.

Although doubling down is intuitive (“We want to exploit what worked before”), it ended up decreasing teams’ chances of winning the next game. The increased reliance on the star players made teams more predictable to the next opponent and easier to defend—and therefore less likely to win the game.

This tendency to stick with stars doesn’t just hold true in competitive sports. All teams—particularly ones in the business world—tend to double down on what has worked. And it is often a bad idea.

Grabbing the reins

Next, we looked at teams more commonly found in organizations and how they make their choices. We recruited participants to engage in several rounds of decision-making tasks as three-person teams. In each round, only one person could make the team’s final call.

Unbeknown to participants, we randomly manipulated their feedback: Some teams were told they were performing very well after they made a decision; others were told they were performing very poorly. Then they were asked who would make the decision for the team in the next round.

The results: Participants whose team succeeded doubled down on the person who previously held the most influence—giving them 30% more influence over decisions in the next task as compared with teams that lost.

We didn’t look specifically at how those teams with a steeper hierarchy performed. But a large body of research supports the idea that a steep hierarchy has a negative impact. One study, for instance, meta-analyzed 54 existing studies spanning more than 13,000 employees and found that overall, team hierarchy is negatively associated with team effectiveness—teams with a steeper hierarchy display lower performance.

Together, our two studies suggest that success threatens teams. What can leaders do? We have three evidence-based recommendations:

Build an egalitarian culture: In our research, we found that teams were less likely to fall into the “success trap” when they began with a relatively egalitarian distribution of influence. When egalitarian teams succeed, the credit is less likely to focus on specific performers, but rather on the team. Likewise, blame is less likely to be attributed solely to the stars, so the team can get a clearer picture of what went wrong.

But managers need to keep a close eye on teams to make sure they are as egalitarian as possible. Sometimes factors irrelevant to expertise—such as gender, ethnicity, personality or socioeconomic background—can bias people’s perceptions of who is an expert and who deserves influence. Team leaders need to deliberately provide avenues of influence for more marginalized or socially reserved members.

For instance, research on leading animation studios found that sustained success came from creating norms that allow any member to provide input, even on areas outside their traditional domain of expertise.

Review your results: After a project, teams should hold a structured review of what happened and why. Research shows that a 30- to 60-minute debrief—a system pioneered by the military—can help teams highlight the interdependent contributions of all team members.

This helps teams develop a more accurate understanding of why things worked and avoid erroneously doubling down on certain members or processes. Such debriefs have been shown to be especially helpful in learning from success, improving team effectiveness more than many more costly training programs such as managerial training and employee-error-management training.

Think long term: Our research found that a strong desire to immediately repeat short-term success may hurt the team by creating more inequality in influence. Because the goal is to succeed again soon, the team doubles down on the stars that got results the last time—making the team more rigid and less adaptable.

For instance, when leaders are focused on the near term, they become less likely to listen to opinions and feedback from nonstar employees—12% less likely than when the teams were oriented to the long term, our research found.

To achieve sustained success, managers must move the focus away from short-term success—which can lead to rigidness—and set longer-term goals, which allows teams to remain flexible and versatile. That means taking the focus away from short-term success to redefine teams’ time frame, giving the teams time to experiment and learn and giving employees the opportunity and incentive to take risks.

Dr. Yan is an assistant professor of organization and innovation at University College London’s School of Management. Dr. Sherf is an associate professor of organizational behavior and Sarah Graham Kenan Scholar at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Christopher To, an assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, also contributed to this research.They can be reached at

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