Monday, 2 April 2012

Too much focus on 'learning from failure' can make us unhappy

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgShepherd, D., Patzelt, H., & Wolfe, M. (2011). Moving Forward from Project Failure: Negative Emotions, Affective Commitment, and Learning from the Experience The Academy of Management Journal, 54 (6), 1229-1259 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2010.0102


  1. Alastair Arnott13 April 2012 at 19:05

    This research is interesting, however:
    Firstly, being unhappy temporarily does not have the substantial detrimental effect that is often associated with it.

    In western culture we seem to be pre-occupied with boosting happiness, which is great but does have it's downsides.

    Secondly. After reading the article the researchers discuss negative emotions which seem to occur after failure being harmful. I argue that the preconditions to the theory of Positive and Negative failure are what makes the crucial difference between failing positively and negatively. Where learning is involved it is several factors that affect the rate of learning, happiness and success:

    Conducive to positive failure are appropriately supportive and forgiving relationships in an unforgiving environment. The more realistic and tangible the challenge or standard, the more likely it is for positive failure to occur.

    I argue that negative failure adversely effects self-esteem and resilience. Unlike negative failure, positive failure can increase motivation and resilience and not only, does not adversely affect self-esteem, but strengthens and builds it. For positive failure to yield the best results, I suggest the following preconditions are important.

    Pre-conditions for positive failure: acceptance of ones own vulnerability, having a growth mindset and embracing imperfection.

    Pre-conditions for negative failure: defiance of ones own vulnerability, having a fixed mindset and embracing perfectionism.

    More available from the book:
    Positive Failure - available from Cambridge Academic Publishers Jan 2013.

  2. The fundamental flaw in this study is it is based on the abstract concept of failure. There is no such thing as failure. It's just a way of describing an event. If the study was done with people who had been taught to frame 'failure' as 'useful information discovered en route to ulitmate success' then I bet the results would be different. It'a how we frame events, rather than non-existent abstractions which determone our subsequent emotional responses.

  3. Harvey, the failures reflected on (or not) in the study were the endeavours themselves - projects or products that did not run to results. They may have been accompanied by useful information - indeed, a key premise of the study is that these happenings are a source of learning - but they are not the learning themselves. As such, I don't see the fundamental flaw that you do.