When we fail, how we feel and what we end up learning from it depends upon our coping strategy, according to new research. In particular, focusing exclusively on 'learning from failure' may make us miserable in the process.
This research explored experiences of working scientists, investigator Dean Shepherd and colleagues noting how this domain involves facing disappointing project failures, see e.g. the low rates of success for bringing drugs to market.
The researchers personally contacted employees from institutions in Germany that worked in areas such as pharmacy, zoology and ageing, with 257 scientists ultimately completing surveys consisting of standard and newly developed measures. The team were interested in outcomes from failure: positive, in the form of learning how to better run future projects or how to treat co-workers when their work is floundering, and negative emotional fallout that results in avoiding project team workers or feelings of disappointment. Both are vital, as learning creates organisational knowledge and negative emotions are associated with lower emotional commitment to the organisation – a finding observed within this study.
Learning from a failure was higher when more time had elapsed since the failure itself, suggesting time provides perspective and insight. Learning was also influenced by a respondent's coping strategy or 'orientation': those who affirmatively responded to items such as 'In my mind, I often go over the events leading up to the project's failure' are considered to have a high loss orientation, and these individuals reported higher levels of post-failure learning.
As time elapsed, however, respondents with high loss orientation swung from a low level of negative emotions to a high one, suggesting that healthy reflection gives way to unhelpful rumination. Restoration orientation, a different strategy exemplified by the item 'I keep my mind active, so it does not focus on the loss of the project', is associated with lower levels of negative emotion, but doesn't provide the learning boost provided by a preoccupation with loss. A third strategy of oscillation orientation involves the willingness to actively switch from mindset to the other, giving one's mind a rest before thinking about the project. Employing this strategy led to both more learning and a time-bound decrease in negative emotion.
As important as it is to learn from our mistakes, making this our overriding focus may be counterproductive. The authors advocate giving more space for a restorative approach, accepting that it can be good not to think about failure, and actively switching mindsets to gather insights while improving attitude toward the project over time. Their data also shows that a culture that considers failures as normal, taking it in its stride, leads to lower negative emotions overall, so there are steps that organisations can take as well.