Catherine H. Tinsley
University professor

Catherine H. Tinsley

Associate professor at Georgetown University's business school and the executive director of the GU Women's Leadership Initiative.


You are your reputation

Q: Does success breed success? Are people more likely to succeed if they wind up with a successful organization like the New York Yankees or performing beside stars such as Derek Jeter? How often does the expectation and aura of success become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Although life offers very few "sure bets," there are a great many examples of success breeding success. In politics, for example, one notes the plethora of dynasties (Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons) and the other elected officials who have some family connection to politics. At the larger level of corporations, one can trace membership in the Fortune 500 companies to see surprisingly little turnover. Or just imagine on a more socio-economic level, how children who grow up in middle- to upper-class households are more likely to go to college and enjoy a middle- to upper-class lifestyle than children who grow up in poverty.

Social science research suggests two reasons why success might breed success. First, is that with success comes a positive reputation. Those people who are successful come to be known for being good at something. The interesting thing about reputations is that once they are formed they tend toward "stickiness." We do not readily or easily update our former impressions of others -- even in the face of disconfirming evidence. Rather, we tend to ignore any disconfirming behaviors or events (either we do not see them or we dismiss them as flukes), to maintain initial impressions (this also is called "the halo effect.")

In my own research, for example, I have studied negotiator reputations and find that once a negotiator has a reputation for being either successfully cooperative (working for the good of both parties) or successfully competitive (being selfish), counterparts going up against these negotiators do not update their initial impressions of the negotiator -- even when that negotiator purposefully and willfully changes his or her negotiation behavior.

The implication of this research to the broader phenomenon of success is that once one is known for something (being a success or being a failure) people react toward that person in a certain way that helps to solidify the person's reputational state. Reputations do become self-fulfilling prophecies -- for example, we know from educational research that "failure" kids who are tracked into remedial math or English have lower expectations set for their progress and so continue to perform lower and lower. Whereas, "successful" kids who are tracked into gifted and talented programs have high expectations set for their achievement, leading to higher and higher performance. That is, as reputational effects develop, the performance of the upper and lower quartiles of students diverge rather than converge.

The other reason success can help breed more success is due to what I will call community effects. This is less about someone's past success breeding her future success, but rather about how someone's success can help enable the success of those around her. Often there are positive externalities that your success has on others around you -- whether it is the skills, knowledge, and abilities that you have to succeed that you can pass along, or the connections you have forged with people that give access to opportunities.

Organization scholars have studied why certain types of firms tend to cluster together -- think of Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill), the I-270 Tech Corridor. They find that clustering together seems to help all organizations' viability and success. Even though these firms technically may be competitors in the same industry, their community helps them all succeed. This success can be due, in part, to firms' intentional cooperation with each other -- sharing knowledge, collective bargaining.

But, interestingly, not all of the community advantages are because of any intentionally cooperative activity. Some positive externalities arise simply because of the community clustering. For example, each particular area starts to attract useful suppliers of labor and other critical resources such as equipment. It may not "take a village" for success, but having one can help.

Of course, behavioral outcomes are all probabilistic and there always is a huge component of luck involved in success. Yet, prior successes and the ensuing reputational effects as well as being embedded in a community of success would seem to increase any actor's odds of success. Although there are no sure wins, I would be willing to bet on a statement that success breeds success.

By Catherine H. Tinsley  |  November 5, 2009; 4:09 PM ET  | Category:  successful connections Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Motivation, qualities and company | Next: Rocky Bleier: Success begets success

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