When Success Leads to Failure

When a basketball team wins a game, the team becomes more reliant on its star players. This is even more likely when the star players stand out far more than the other players. Of course, that makes sense. You want to keep doing what works. But here’s the problem: It makes your team start losing more, according to a recent study by three business school professors. Here are the key findings:

  • When a basketball team wins a game, then in the next games, they start to pass the ball more to their stars and the stars shoot a higher percentage of the shots.
  • This decreases the chance they’ll win the next game. Basketball teams win because of teamwork, not just because of one or two stars.
  • The success-to-loss effect is more dramatic when the teams have a big difference in abilities. Of course, when you win, the stars did a really good job. But the team starts to underestimate the contributions of everyone else.

Studies of all kinds of teams, including business teams, find that teams with big differences in status and influence are less effective.

So what should you do? You don’t want to hold back your star performers. But at the same time, you need the whole team if you want to keep succeeding. Here’s some advice.

  • It’s best to have an egalitarian culture and an even distribution of influence. When everyone is more equal, the success-to-loss effect is less dramatic.
  • You’re still going to have stars and you want to have stars on your team. But make sure that your team knows about the risk of too much success. And make sure everyone knows that it’s not just about the star. It’s a hard balance to do this while, at the same time, awarding the great performance of the star.
  • If everyone is focused only on the next game, you get a short-term focus and you lose sight of the longer term. This short-term focus exaggerates the success-to-loss effect. Keep everyone thinking about the long game.

Christopher To, Thomas Taiyi Yan, and Elad N. Sherf. “Victorious and hierarchical: Past performance as a determinant of team hierarchical differentiation.” 2021. Organization Science. Or check out this short version in The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2023.

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