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The 'status momentum' effect

When a competitor rises in the hierarchy, what impact does it have on their rivals?

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  • A new paper explores how ranked hierarchies react to rising competitors.
  • Incumbents are intimidated and make more mistakes when facing rising competitors.

Rankings of teams, individuals, academic institutions and market competitors are everywhere but how much do we know about how they evolve over time?

A new paper co-authored by Niro Sivanathan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, explores the effect of a rising competitor on the performance of those around them. 

In Doppler Effect in Status Competition: The Impact of Status Momentum within Rank Ordered Hierarchies, Dr Sivanathan and his co-authors hypothesised that a competitor’s momentum impairs the performance of those they compete against, and in turn further benefits their rise up the hierarchy.

In researching the paper, the authors, who include Hemant Kakkar, Assistant Professor of Management and Organisations at the Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (who received his PhD at London Business School) and Nathan C. Pettit, Associate Professor of Management and Organisations at New York University Stern examined 117,000 professional tennis matches and more than five million online amateur chess games. 

“As individuals rise through the ranks, past success creates an expectation of future success.”

In addition to analysing chess and tennis results, the authors also tested their theory with more than 1,800 research participants in four online studies. Participants faced various competitive scenarios where they took tests to measure how threatened they felt.

These studies surfaced the intimidating effect of ‘status momentum’; as individuals rise through the ranks, past success creates an expectation of future success that leads others to become overly concerned about their own rank and experience feelings of “self-doubt and rigidity”.

Dr Sivanathan and his co-authors found this effect applied to evenly matched competitors, as well as instances when there is a big gap in the ranking between the upcoming player and an established higher-status opponent.

Their hope is that the research will advance the understanding of how hierarchies are disrupted and evolve over time.