You don’t need a scientific study to tell you that messing up at work is a zero-fun hell spiral. But science can help us understand how to respond to our mistakes so we can learn from what happened and kick ass the next time around. And, it turns out, popular advice like “sucking it up” may not be the best route to go.
A recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that people who allowed themselves a brief wallowing period — even to the point of self-pity — after failing at a task were more successful in the future compared to those who tried to rationalize and move on immediately from what happened.
In the first experiment, people were asked to search online for the cheapest blender they could find, with the possibility of winning a $50 cash prize. Unbeknownst to those involved, the experiment was designed for everyone to fail.
After establishing baseline failure, researchers asked participants to write down how they felt about losing. Some were instructed to focus on their emotions — and experienced thoughts like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I did that,” “I don’t want to feel like this ever again,” and “I didn’t do my best.” Others were asked to think “cognitively” (logically) about their failure, for example, “This wasn’t important” and “I wouldn’t have won anyway.”
Process your emotions
For the second experiment, participants were given a budget and asked to search online for a book to buy a friend while scientists measured how many minutes they spent looking.
“We found that the people who’d focused on their emotional responses spent nearly 25 percent more time searching for a low-priced book than those who only reflected cognitively on their failure,” says co-author Selin A. Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University.
Why would acknowledging feelings about failure and even throwing a pity party motivate someone to try harder in the future? It’s true that we should rationalize mistakes to a degree — otherwise we’d go crazy beating ourselves up — but when we stop to process our emotions, our innate ability to be resourceful and change kicks in.
“Neuroscience studies show that when we feel strongly enough about something, the brain ‘tags’ it and when a similar situation arises in the future, we draw from that emotion to find solutions,” says Malkoc. “For example, if a person was bit by a dog in the past, fear and pain would surface every time they saw a similar dog. And, more importantly, the person might alter her behavior based on the emotional thoughts stored in their brain.”
Learn from your mistakes
Perhaps blenders and online shopping don’t seem precisely relevant to office life, but Malkoc and her team view their findings as closely related to the workplace, a space where performance is constantly being assessed by supervisors. “It’s especially applicable to employees who want to learn from their mistakes,” says Malkoc. “In that case, it’s best to pause and let your mistake sink in.”
So next text time you screw up at work, give yourself permission to acknowledge how bad it feels, sit quietly with those emotions for a bit — but not too long: Malkoc advises ruminating for five minutes, max. “That’s long enough before the defense mechanisms kick in.”