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How Success Can Be More Stressful Than Failure

Success can produce higher expectations for performance

Most people wish for and work towards greater success—in their careers, in relationships, and their activities. Yet many people are unprepared when that success comes along, and the success becomes a trigger for stress and unhappiness.

Why?

Dr. Jason Plaks, a social psychologist at the University of Toronto and Kristin Stecher a research scientist at the University of Washington, reported in their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  that how people view their abilities in the workplace impacts how they respond to success. They found that those people who thought of their capabilities as fixed were more likely to become anxious and disoriented when faced with dramatic or sudden success, causing their subsequent performance to plummet, compared to those people who thought of their abilities as changeable.

Plaks says "people are driven to feel that they can predict and control their outcomes. So when their performance turns out to violate their predictions, this can be unnerving."

This research shows a clear connection to the work done by researcher Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo,  reported that overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as "I accept myself completely" can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals in individuals with low self-esteem. When positive self-statements strongly conflict with self-perception, the researchers argue, there is not mere resistance but a reinforcing of self-perception. People who view themselves as unlovable, for example, find that saying that they are lovable is so unbelievable that it strengthens their own negative view rather than reversing it.

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The parallel in both Plaks' and Woods' research is that when one's self-perception is out of alignment with what is happening outside—sudden success—they experience stress and an inability to reconcile the two.

Promotions can be even more stressful than divorce according to a 2008 study by Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global human resources consulting firm, entitled, Leadership Transitions Study. When given the opportunity to rate life challenges in order of difficulty 19 percent of all U.S. leaders surveyed rated being promoted as the number one greatest challenge, superseding personal stressors such as coping with bereavement, divorce and relocation.  The report concluded that "being promoted is more than a simple next step—it requires a personal transformation and a self-awareness."

Penelope Trunk, writing in her blog on the subject, interviewed Matt Paese, Vice President of DDI, asking him the three top reasons why promotions were so stressful. He said: things get more political; there is more ambiguity and uncertainty; you don't have as much personal control and you have to get things done through other people. All of the factors Paese identified are things that can only be controlled internally in the individual.

Stephanie Frank, author of The Accidental Millionaire, has worked with hundreds of high performance individuals who suddenly find themselves very successful. In her article in Fast Company,  5 Things You Must Know About Sudden Success, Frank cites the importance of developing one's emotional intelligence, especially managing your emotions in relationships as one of keys to handling sudden success.

So it seems that with success, particularly sudden success, comes increased internal stresses, the solution for which lies within the individual, not outside.

http://raywilliams.ca; @raybwilliams

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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