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Jennifer Carson Marr, assistant professor of organizational behavior
Jennifer Carson Marr, assistant professor of organizational behavior

Faculty Profile: Jennifer Carson Marr Studies Career Setbacks and Comebacks

Jennifer Carson Marr admits that she had a naive view of what it takes to make it to the top in the corporate world when she first began her career.

At the time she was working for executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, interviewing potential candidates for C-suite positions. “I became interested in what made them successful,” she says.

“In my mind, I would have thought they would have followed a clear trajectory from job A to Job B to Job C. But in talking to those leaders, I realized that they didn’t always follow direct paths to get where they were,” explains Marr, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Scheller.

“I’d previously thought that if you ever got demoted or fired, that was it,” she says. “But many of those executives had experienced failures they considered key to becoming successful. Some took circuitous routes, switching industries or making lateral moves because they wanted to work in particular divisions or learn certain skills. I learned there’s not always a clear path to the top.”

Research Inspiration

That early work experience sparked her interest in doing related research, inspiring her to pursue her PhD at London Business School. Her dissertation focused on the phenomenon of status loss in the business world and how high achievers cope with it.

In 2014, Marr published the paper “Falling from Great (and not So Great) Heights: Initial Status Position Influences Performance after Status Loss” in the leading Academy of Management Journal.

Marr says “the traditional perspective is that high-status individuals will be in a better position to deal with status loss and perform well afterwards than low-status individuals.”

But her paper called this traditional view into question. Yes, high-status individuals may have "more resources than low-status individuals on which to draw," but they also "experience more self-threat and subsequent difficulty performing well after losing status," concludes her study.

Dependence on Status

Although "making their prestigious position a central part of their self bolsters high-status individuals’ self-worth... it also means that they come to depend more than low-status individuals on their position to maintain their positive self-view," Marr explains.

"Consequently, losing status is likely to be more self-threatening for high- than low-status individuals, and they will experience a more significant decline in the quality of their performance in the immediate aftermath of status loss.”

Marr and her co-author derived their findings from two behavior experiments and a study involving Major League Baseball players. In the baseball study, the researchers examined whether higher-status players were more negatively affected by final-offer salary-arbitration losses those of lesser status. Performance on the field did tend to fall off for the higher-status players, the study found.

Awareness of the impact of status loss is important, Marr notes, because work demands do not always stop. In some professions, such as medicine or law enforcement, even brief lapses of performance could have disastrous consequences, she says. Taking time off, if possible, to assess the new situation might be prudent, according to Marr.

“Our research investigates the consequences of status loss, but over time individuals find ways to affirm themselves and come back through perseverance and persistence,” she says. “Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart are prime examples of that.”

Academic Success

Perseverance and persistence are also qualities that are helpful to success in academic research, says Marr, a native of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “It is a career where you have to learn from failures, as many papers submitted for publication are often rejected or require extensive revisions.”

When Marr first arrived in Atlanta to interview for a Scheller College position, she was staying at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center just before a football game. “It was very exciting with all of these people around wearing Georgia Tech paraphernalia,” she remembers.

What’s more, she found the Organizational Behavior faculty at Scheller to be a collegial, research-oriented group in which she would fit well. As a new mother, she’s found supportive role models among female faculty members. “It’s important to have people you look up to,” she says.

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