Is Your Thinking About Success Shaped by Delusion?

More than most other cultures, personal and organizational success are immensely important to Americans (You can toss the Chinese in with the Americans). Celebrity status, personal book sales, organizational profit and individual power and finances are inevitably touted—and by a lot more than the media. So I was amused by research focusing on theTiger Mother concluding that the theory of why people thrive is “finally rigorously debunked.

Chua and Rubenfeld argued that three traits predicted personal success:

  • Belief that their group was inherently superior to others.
  • A sense of personal insecurity.
  • High degree of impulse control.

But, their conclusions couldn’t withstand the scrutiny of research.

The research found nothing especially unique or even new about personal success. Intelligence and socioeconomic background are still the most powerful factors in explaining success. But they do not guarantee success. (Note the distinction between explaining and guaranteeing success!)

And so the researchers concluded that Chua and Rubenfeld created a provocative theory, and they spun around it an intricate web of circumstantial evidence, but it did not stand up to direct empirical tests. Our conclusion. . . is expressed by the saying, “What is new is not correct, and what is correct is not new.”

The Takeaway: Don’t take personal or organizational success predictions seriously
The Tiger Mom’s theory is just another of those success stories built on faulty conclusions. Personal success theory is not the only baseless belief system. Organizational success is just as difficult to predict. There will always be studies and books that try to discover the best means for personal and organizational success. Start with the deeply flawed Peters and Waterman’s “In Search of Excellence” of the last century and go on to Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” Great book sales, but wrongheaded.

In a thorough and fascinating study of the delusions of organizational success, Phil Rosenzweig emphasizes again and again that our thinking about business is shaped by a number of delusions. They include the delusions of single explanations, rigorous research, lasting success and strategic focus.

Rosenzweig’s conclusions should be pasted on our foreheads.

  • Any good strategy involves risk. If you think your strategy is foolproof, the fool may well be you.
  • Execution, too, is uncertain—what works in one company with our workforce may have different results elsewhere.
  • Chance often plays a greater role than we think, or than successful managers like to admit.
  • The link between inputs and outcomes is tenuous. Bad outcomes don’t always mean that managers made mistakes; and good outcomes don’t always mean they acted brilliantly.
  • But when the die is cast, the best managers act as if chance is irrelevant—persistence and tenacity are everything.

None or even all of the above can predict personal or organizational success.

What’s important to understand in all these personal and organizational studies is that they fail to take context seriously. As often as not, shifting global contexts are more important than the power of the individual and the quality of the organization. Luck consistently plays a bigger role than most of us want to admit. That doesn’t mean we or our organization shouldn’t try to succeed.

So the best we can do is understand that both personal and organizational success come from a combination of shrewd judgment, hard work and good luck. And there’s a lot of movement and wiggle-room in that definition.

Leave a Reply