Does Success Depend on Others Failing?

Whether we like it or not, scientific research suggests that it does… but does it have to?

A mediation I recently conducted and an article referred to me by one of my Harvard lecturers, David Hoffman, has provided some interesting insight into the way we experience success and how it may be harnessed.

Like with many mediations, neither party could agree with the other, the fight had been brewing for years. One party was fighting purely on principle (alarm bells!) and the other was so entrenched in its position it could see no other way out. Each parties’ views of their own success at mediation being intrinsically linked to the other party feeling pain (now this was a commercial dispute, so the pain was in the form of money, egos, reputation… ).

Whilst in many ways it was a typical mediation, the solution was unique – the process for getting there, however, can be repeated. It may also shed light on the question of whether feelings of success really do depend on others failing (or feeling pain)…. Can both parties feel success?

Success and our naturally competitive streak

For better or worse, it seems success (to the extent of doing better than others) is important in all parts of our business and personal lives.

The article explores research performed by cognition experts and economists at the University of Bonn in Germany who wanted to understand whether social comparison affects an individual’s well-being and in-turn their behavior in a social environment.

In short, the research concluded that people care a lot about keeping up with others. In the study, people played a game where they could see the rewards they earned as well as those earned by their opponents. If the player’s rewards were greater than their own earlier rewards, but not as great as the rewards achieved by their opponents, their brain’s reward response did not register the success as strongly as when their opponent’s rewards were less than theirs.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly!), this was the case, regardless of the size of the player’s own reward. Whilst this has always been a longstanding theory of economists, the science backs up the fact that people, are by nature, competitive.

This natural inkling for competitiveness poses an interesting dilemma for those of us who participate in negotiation and mediation on a regular basis. Particularly when it is not only our own measures of success that we have to prioritise, but those of our clients, and often those of the other party (and their legal team, for that matter) in order to get the deal over the line. 

It begs the question, in a dispute or negotiation, do parties need to feel that they have achieved a greater result than the other party in order to feel true success in the outcome? ( … the case study further below suggests otherwise)

How do we prepare for genuine success?

As professional negotiators, how can we better prepare our clients (and ourselves) going into a mediation or negotiation, so that we can experience success?

As well as the concept we’ve just discussed, it is widely understood that a large key to a successful negotiation is to first understand:

  • what motivates us (our clients), and
  • what motivates the other party.

If we understand both of these things, then surely our sense of success can only be improved?

One party wants “X”. The other wants “Z”… and usually a negotiation results in both parties meeting somewhere in the middle around “Y”, or going to court so that a third party can make a decision about everything.

The reality is, in most negotiations, both parties are compromising. No one feels like they have ‘won’. However, what if both parties could experience success via alternative creative options?

What if, as professional negotiators, we spent less time coming up with problems and answers to those problems and more time preparing meaningful questions, challenging our “usual” process… to better understand motivations? Perhaps by asking the right questions, we’d get to the root cause of the issue and come up with a creative outcome where both parties feel more like they’re successful and less like they’ve ‘settled’.

Less settling, more success

In the recent mediation I referred to earlier, two corporate parties had been in a heated dispute for a number of years – they were headed to Court. 

However, during the mediation, Party A mentioned to me that it had become the ‘principle’ of the matter, that all he wanted was to teach Party B a lesson, and have it recognized that Party B had done the wrong thing. 

This was Party A’s definition of success… getting Party B to admit fault (and/or feel pain).  

As Party A headed to the lifts, in one last-ditch attempt, I asked one final question:

“What would you be doing if you didn’t have to spend all this time on this dispute?” 

Party A proceeded to tell me, in the most animated way, that his passion project was that he was a founder of a charitable organization. I asked him if he could indulge me one further moment by waiting for a further 5 minutes. 

I went back to Party B’s room, who had begun to pack up, and asked them:

“What if they could put the money they were otherwise going to spend on legal costs towards a charitable organization instead and resolve the dispute once and for all?”

Party B responded:

“That would be amazing, the CEO would love that!” 

This was Party B’s definition of success… a happy CEO, a way out whilst saving face, not giving in to Party A, and avoiding the financial and time expense of going Court.

Pleasingly, the dispute settled. Party B agreed to donate a significant amount of money (the value of the ‘fighting fund’) to a charitable organization and Party A felt it was acknowledged that he’d been wronged.

They settled… but they actually both felt a sense of success.

What are the right questions?

This demonstrates how thinking creatively during negotiations and mediations whilst truly understanding motivations and asking the right questions at the right time in the right way can lead to an outcome where both parties feel like they’ve succeeded.    …. may be not in the grand way they’d hoped, but in a way they can live with.

In this case, unlike in the article, both parties felt success – yet the other didn’t feel pain or that they’d failed…. Although that’s not possible in every case, armed with an understanding that people are by their very nature, competitive (including those that think they’re not!), and their competitiveness is all relative in the context of the other party – the right questions will continue to present themselves.


  1. Harvard University – Executive Course – Advanced Mediation
  2. The study and findings by the Bonn University, Social Comparison Affects Reward-Related Brain Activity in the Human Ventral Striatum, can be read here.
  3. The article referenced, Success Depends on Others Failing, by senior contributing health writer for, Laura Blue, can be read here.

Anna McRae-Anderson

Anna has a knack for helping parties find creative commercial solutions. With over 20 years commercial dispute resolution experience as both mediator and ex-litigator, her vast understanding of the law is harmonized with her practical intellect and compassion for those in dispute.

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