In a success-oriented society, we tend to adopt successful people as role models. By imitating what makes these people successful and adapting that to our personality and work style, we think we can become equally as successful.

Conversely, there is a group of so-called motivation experts who use phrases such as successful, competent or fortunate failure in order to convince us that the only way to learn properly is by facing up to mistakes and failures. We are just like children and learn best by just trying things out, according to the principle of trial and error.

Failures and mistakes are discouraging

Recent research carried out by Laureen Eskreis-Winkler (Booth School of Business) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago*) reveals that we learn best from our own successes. As well as from the mistakes and successes of others. The research results show that we learn very little from our own mistakes. The two authors argue that the reason for this, is that our experiences of mistakes and failures are an attack on our ego. Therefore also on our self-esteem and self-confidence. And as such on our motivation to learn from these experiences. Failures and mistakes discourage us. This outcome didn’t really warrant any scientific research when you think about it.

Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach’s findings clearly show that we aren’t merely learning from our own successes and those of others, but also from the mistakes of others. Interesting recommendations for management of employees and teams can be derived from this. Managers, on the one hand, should have a vested interest in ensuring that employees can succeed in order to stay motivated. And they should create a platform where they can showcase their successes. This is good for one’s personal motivation. Plus it helps other colleagues to learn from these accomplishments.

Two sides of the same coin

Since success and failure are two sides of the same coin, we cannot act as if the other side doesn’t exist. Recognizing a mistake or admitting a failure is tough. Often those involved are afraid of the reactions of their boss or colleagues and fear adverse consequences. Such as poorer chances of promotion. They prefer to attract as little attention as possible. Although this may lead to a sense of relief for their own ego, it does come with a number of disadvantages.

Concern about adverse consequences is not resolved, but only transferred into a fear of being discovered. Willingness and ability to learn from these types of events and experience is minimal. Others are also unable to potentially benefit from this experience.

What can these insights mean for managers and for dealing with mistakes inside companies? Leaders could benefit from the awareness that we learn more from the mistakes of others than from our own. That’s why they are introducing ‘formats’ that reflect openly and collectively on mistakes and experiences of failure. Insights can then be gained from these.

Culture of appreciation

This calls for a culture of appreciation within companies, departments or teams. Wherein not only successes, but mistakes are seen as learning opportunities too. If managers and employees feel confident that they needn’t expect any adverse consequences, but are valued for their openness and responsibility, negative effects on self-esteem and self-confidence will be less pronounced. And the more people involved in reporting their own successes AND failures, the less anxiety there will be about any eventual consequences. Because this it how it becomes clear that everybody experiences success as well as failure in their lives. This will in turn promote their own willingness to learnv(staying within the context of the published article*). And contribute to a true culture of trust and learning within companies.

*) Eskreis-Winkler & Fishbach, A. (2019) Not Learning from Failure – the Greatest Failure of All. DOI: 10.1177/0956797619881133

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Tessie Hartjes, Floris Beemster, Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.