Matthew Bothner

Management & Leadership

Investigating the Matthew effect and the status traps that come with success

Research by Matthew Bothner, Professor, Deutsche Telekom Chair in Leadership and HR Development, ESMT

A provocative line in the Gospel of Saint Matthew states that “unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” In the world of work, social scientists interpret this to mean that those who enjoy high standing in their field receive more credit for the same contributions than do those who have less status. Matthew Bothner, Professor and Deutsche Telekom Chair in Leadership and Human Resources Development at ESMT, wanted to better understand how the “Matthew effect,” as it is known in sociology, applies to careers, and in particular, which factors elicit and constrain this effect.

Bothner and three colleagues from the U.S. and South Korea developed a mathematical model to address these themes. Their model was based on a hypothetical group of young individuals, such as a cohort of newly-minted scientists joining an R&D facility or a group of artists starting their careers. In the model, these individuals all started their careers at the same time but their success differed discernibly over time, even though they did not differ dramatically in basic skills. How was it possible that some in the group raced ahead in status while others seemed stuck?

In the model, it appeared at first that once a more talented individual pulled slightly ahead of the pack, his or her advantage would “snowball” endlessly. By getting more recognition from peers (and thus more status) for his or her work—with the side effect of also getting this work done more easily—at first glance, it appeared that the Matthew effect would always proceed seamlessly. Surprisingly, however, they found that, under some circumstances, this effect lost its force. While in some cases, the most able individual earned the esteem of his or her peers, in other cases, a surprise candidate emerged.

Exploring their model further, Bothner and his collaborators found out the following: the question as to whether or not the Matthew effect takes hold depends on how much an individual’s status is influenced (or not influenced) by his or her surroundings. In some instances, a person’s status is almost entirely “earned” by his or her own achievements.  In other cases, the status of a person is influenced strongly by the status of those evaluating that person. The “halo” of the evaluator, who is often a mentor, passes to the person and (artificially) boosts that person’s status—sometimes to the eventual detriment of the evaluator. Bothner calls this “status diffusion.”

Bothner’s research offers a warning to mentors, who should be aware of the possible dangers of the Matthew effect: the stronger the mentee, the greater the danger that the achievements and successes of the mentee can not only enable him or her to benefit from the mentor’s halo, but also to catch or even surpass the mentor in status. This was the unexpected “check” on the Matthew effect identified by Bothner and his colleagues.  While elites do tend to get more credit for their work (and get their work done more easily), to belong meaningfully to a group of elites, they usually also have to endorse someone, and when they do, the person they have endorsed can at times catch and displace them in standing.

The Matthew effect and Matt Bothner’s research was featured in an article (in German) by Gesine Braun which appeared in the Harvard Business Manager in August 2013.