Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Why the upstarts have a head start

Niro Sivanathan’s research finds that changes in status impact our performance – and that good news for our competitors is bad news for us

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In 30 seconds:

  • New paper looks at how a person’s positive status momentum (ie, recent positive trajectory within a hierarchy) affects their competitors
  • Findings show that competing against someone who has been rapidly rising in status causes us to perform worse against them
  • This holds true even if we are, in theory, still more skilled than that competitor, and even if they are ranked far more highly than us
  • Essentially, competing against someone who has been rapidly rising in status causes us to perform worse than might otherwise have been expected.

Professor Niro Sivanathan has been exploring various aspects of organisational behaviour at London Business School for nearly 15 years. His research focuses on how social, psychological and evolutionary influences shape our perceptions of status and power within personal and professional hierarchies. His latest paper, The impact of dynamic status changes within competitive rank-ordered hierarchies, examines how a person’s positive status momentum (ie, recent positive trajectory within a hierarchy) affects their competitors – even when those competitors are still ranked far more highly.

Professor Sivanathan has always been interested in questions around rank and status, especially the ineffable qualities of the latter. “Status is a very interesting concept to me,” he says. “Power dynamics are typically clear-cut: if a person controls more resources, they have more power. Status is a far more nuanced social phenomenon.”

Although there has already been much research into the effects of rank and status on human relationships, Professor Sivanathan points out that less attention has been paid to momentum – the speed and force with which we rise and fall though hierarchical systems. “Much of the existing research looked at status and rank as a fixed entity; we wanted to take a more dynamic view.”

Are we all just jockeying for higher status?

Rankings are ubiquitous. Restaurants, professional athletes, even business schools. “There’s actually research that shows we’re born with a nervous system that has the ability to detect and sort social rank,” Professor Sivanathan explains. Our brains also tend to project the end point of an object in motion. Take a tennis ball, flying through the air at speed – our brains see the ball in motion and perceive its location as where it is likely to end up, rather than where it is in the moment. The same is true of our perceptions of people and organisations. When we see a person, say a tennis player, rise from being ranked 12th in the world to being ranked 6th, we can’t help but assume they will continue to move up the rankings at a similar pace – a phenomenon Professor Sivanathan calls status momentum.

What he and his team really wanted to explore was the effect this sudden success might have on a player who was ranked 5th, or even 1st in the world. “Status is a fixed resource within a hierarchy. By definition, the rise of one player must mean someone else falls. This means we’re all jostling for just a few top spots and looking for ways to enhance and protect our rank.”

In theory, a tennis player who has been consistently ranked 1st in the world should have nothing to fear from someone who has only recently risen to 6th; as Professor Sivanathan has shown, however, the reality is far more complicated. “We found that, in these scenarios, the higher-ranked player is more likely to make unforced errors; ie, errors of their own making that are detrimental to their game.”

Essentially, competing against someone who has been rapidly rising in status causes us to perform worse – even if we are, in theory, still more skilled than they are.

‘We saw it time and time again – expert players losing against lower-ranked players with strong status momentum. This isn’t an incidental observation; it was over millions and millions of games'

Testing the theory… with help from an online chess platform

To explore these ideas, Professor Sivanathan and his team considered the real-world contexts of 5.2 million observations of chess tournaments and 117,762 observations of professional tennis players. They found that performances were negatively impacted when facing a competitor with positive status momentum. Proving that this was the case across both cognitive and physical competitions was important; hence why the team focused on chess and tennis specifically.

The focus on unforced errors (errors that are attributable to players’ own mistakes, rather than the skill or effort of their opponent) highlights another key point Professor Sivanathan was keen to prove: “What we’re seeing isn’t simply a case of people losing or missing points because their opponent is getting better. People may look at these rankings and say, ‘Well, that player is just playing more and getting better, so no wonder they’re beating high-ranking opponents,’ but clearly that’s not the case.”

The platform used in the experiment, chess.com, is open to all players, from total novices to expert players. The site assigns a score to players after every match and their rank moves up or down accordingly. The site, however, also factors the rank of a player’s opponent into their score – a novice who beats an expert will move up the ranks faster than a novice beating someone of a similar level. It was higher-ranked players’ performances in these matches that Professor Sivanathan was interested in. “We saw it time and time again – expert players losing against lower-ranked players with strong status momentum. This isn’t an incidental observation; it was over millions and millions of games. The expert players’ chances of winning dropped from 65% to 30% as the opponent’s momentum increased; a significant decrease.”

An additional four experimental studies confirmed the team’s hypothesis that a player’s positive momentum results in a positive projection of their future rank amongst their opponents. This, in turn, increases the psychological threat for those opponents.

What does this teach us?

Professor Sivanathan is clear on what the results of his research tell us about the impact of status and mindset: “What we’re seeing is that people can very easily get in their own heads and start psyching themselves out. Even experts are more likely to make mistakes when they are aware that their competitor has been gaining status momentum.”

Crucially, Professor Sivanathan and his team have also been able to prove that rank and status are not one and the same: “The long-standing view has been that rank equals status; the higher you rank, the higher your status. We can see now that the pace at which you rise through the ranks is also a factor in conferring status.”

Given the findings, does it make sense for a player who finds themselves gaining momentum to look for more high-status opponents? “Absolutely – there’s an element to this of striking while the iron is hot. Even if you’ve only recently risen from being ranked in the hundreds to the low teens, it’s in your interest to be challenging players at the very top. There’s a good chance the threat they perceive from your challenge will result in a worse performance on their part,” Professor Sivanathan says. “Although, given what we know now, it might be in the interests of the other players to turn you down.”

Niro Sivanathan is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School

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