There is a trick to learning from failure

Learning from our mistakes actually takes practice. As demonstrated by a new study conducted by Chicago Booth postdoctoral fellow Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach,  if we’re too prideful in the wake of defeat its lessons will be lost on us.

“Ego makes people reluctant to both learn from failure and share much about their failures. But “information on failures is a public good,” Fishbach explained. “When it is shared, society wins.”

Although this truth is applicable to any discipline, Winkler and Fishbach used telemarketing as a model.

The impact of failure

After recruiting their study group, the two researchers had each participating telemarketer complete a 10-question quiz regarding customer service. The subjects were provided with two possible answers for each question. Questions like, how much money, annually, do US companies lose due to poor customer service? Sixty million or $90 million? With $60 million being the only correct response. 

Half of the study group were lauded for the answers they got correct and the other half received disparaging feedback for the answers they got wrong; even if either group member got the same amount of answers correct.

In order to evaluate the impact of each outcome, the researchers designed a follow-up quiz. The telemarketers that received positive feedback answered 62% of the follow-up questions correctly, while the other group that received “failure feedback” only got 48% on the same exam. 

A third and final exam that involved symbols from Amazon Mechanical Turk, yielded the same results.  The participants that received positive feedback scored 80%, while the group with the failure condition scored 59%. 

After all of the tests were administered and completed, Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach inquired after each participant’s level of self-esteem. Of course, the telemarketers that continually received negative feedback reported the lowest degrees of self-esteem and the telemarketers that consistently received positive feedback performed better, funding the study’s key hypothesis.

Ego has a tremendous impact on both performance and collaboration

Those that were subject to critique were significantly less motivated than their counterparts. This group also became increasingly diffident when it came to sharing their lackluster results.  When participants were asked to readjust their own strategy based on their peers’ wrong answers, they were successfully able to do so, which means ego influenced performances more than the scores themselves. 

“Because people find failure ego-threatening, they will disengage from the experience, which means they stop paying attention, or, tune out,” the authors wrote. “Reducing the degree to which failure involves the ego will promote learning.”

There is a lesson to be learned from both sides of the process. For those holding positions of authority, the researchers suggest amputating ego from the evaluation. For instance, if an employee is under-performing in a certain area, course correction should be voiced from an objective and constructive place. Conveying here’s what our team needs from you as opposed to here’s what you’re not doing for our team.

For subordinates it’s important not to be too sensitive to critique. Dejection is a perfectly appropriate reaction to failure, so long as the feeling is exercised productively in the end.