The Unexpected Consequences of Success

Published
10/02/2014 by Srini Pillay HBR

Everybody loves a winner, right? No, unfortunately, not always. In my coaching practice, many executives and entrepreneurs vent their frustrations with the unexpected negative consequences of their success — such as their anxiety over being able to maintain their winning streak, the fear that they will be set up to fail, and the envy others feel toward them for their good fortune. Turns out that, according to recent research, these kinds of worries aren’t just in their heads — they’re very real. Here’s a summary of that research, along with suggestions for overcoming these traps.


Don’t do victory laps:  A recent study shows that people judge expressive winners as arrogant compared to inexpressive winners and are less likely to want to befriend them. Being judged negatively for your success is justifiably an implicit fear. As a result, success can heighten ambivalence, even unconsciously, about winning. What can you do about this? Learn to moderate when and where you express happiness about your success. Share the good news with other successful people. And focus your conversation on other things you are developing when you are succeeding so as not to annoy people. Striking a balance between authentically admitting your happiness and pretending to “not care” is important. We should enjoy the motivation that comes from being successful, rather than sabotaging ourselves when we are inauthentic. For example, Ray, a current client, often smiles in a pleased way when he announces good news to his company or the public, but always focuses on the unconquered path ahead. He avoids fist pumps and overt signs of victory even when he is overjoyed, and reserves this for conversations with select people in his life.


Focus on the value you bring, not on winning per seAnother study found that when people are similar but superior to us in their achievements, our brain’s conflict center is activated leading to envy. In addition, when these people fail, our brain’s reward center is activated leading to feelings of schadenfreude (pleasure when someone else falls from grace). When we win, we assume that others will feel similarly, as we project our own feelings onto them. This fear may be unconscious or conscious and may disrupt our confidence, causing anxiety about the effect of our success on other people. To counteract this fear of someone else wishing we would fall, focus instead on the value that you bring to the world rather than winning per se. This will help boost your confidence despite this fear. For example, Cathy, a CEO whose meteoric rise to the top left other people gasping, “distracted” people from their shock by focusing on the value that the company brought to the world.


Stay in the “here and now”: When we anticipate future reactions from others, this may actually prevent us from achieving or maintaining success, and if we think too much about these reactions, they may prevent us from subsequently adequately controlling our emotions.  To manage this consequence of success, stop overthinking the success. Focus on the “here and now.” Let go of worrying about the future and rationalizing the past.  Obsession with the past can be distracting and is not always helpful. Also, it will prevent you from clearing your mind. The study above shows that when we integrate what we are anticipating into the here-and-now, we are more likely to manage our emotions more effectively. This means enjoying, accepting, and motivating ourselves with our successes. Joe, an entrepreneur, always “recalibrates” after each round of funding by setting new goals and focuses on what he has to execute on now, rather than obsessively trying to “psychologize” his prior victories. He chooses a time to let go and moves on.


Reach higher:  Finally, when we are at the summit of our careers, we may become bored to the point that we slow down too much and become disoriented.  This is called “the summit syndrome.” To prevent boredom, you have to always be looking for stimulating ways to apply your mastery. When you have mastered something, ask yourself: How you can innovate around this? Watch out for your own boredom as it can lead you to sabotage yourself, and also watch out for reactive lateral shifts in job hierarchy simply to escape your boredom of mastery. Huang, a fund manager, sticks to his investment process within his company and after a streak of major wins, he raises the bar even more for himself and engages in this “reaching.”


People often prepare for failure, but rarely prepare for what they will do when they succeed. Even when we consciously want to be successful, enjoying that success can be a challenge. By following the suggestions above, you can create a framework for managing success so that you can more reliably sustain your success when it occurs. If you are conscious about these factors, you will create far more opportunities to sustain your success over time. More importantly though, as a society, we are likely to have more sustained wins if we manage our feelings of envy and schadenfreude. If we do this, we, and those whom we care about, will fully enjoy and savor those winning streaks.