The success enjoy more attention than failures. We celebrate success stories and analyze them to extract the reasons why things went so well.
Companies keep these kinds of lessons and share them as tips for ‘best practices’, while after-dinner speakers delight their audience with the steps they took to glory.
Conversely, if they are not completely buried, failures and those who perpetrate them are more often seen as sources of shame or ignominy.
However, it is often mistakes, missteps, and outright failures that contain the most useful practical information on how to do things better, if only we were more willing to share and study them.
The ostrich effect
Previous research has already exposed our futile aversion to information about current or future failure, a problem called “the ostrich effect” by psychologist Thomas Webb of the University of Sheffield and his colleagues. Whether we are trying a new fitness regimen, building a company website, or planning an impending pandemic, the human inclination is to put our bees underground once we have embarked on our way. Rather than monitoring our progress to see if we have strayed, we grit our teeth, carry on, and hope for the best.
The same was true when they asked hundreds of volunteers to think about the times when they had managed to stay focused on work, and then the times when they failed and were distracted. Most were more reluctant to share their failures of focus than successes. The aversion to sharing failures persisted even when the researchers asked volunteers to share with their ‘future selves’, suggesting that there is more to this bias than wanting to make a good impression on strangers.
Lack of information
Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach believe that a key factor is that many of us simply don’t realize how announced failures can be. To test this experimentally, they created a simplified task designed to model real-life situations where the key to success is avoiding mistakes. They wanted to see if the volunteers would avoid sharing their failures even if they were more informative than their successes.
Pay extra attention
The new findings suggest that many of us could simply benefit from being more aware of the hidden lessons in our failures.
“In the wake of failure, ask, ‘What have I learned? How can I make this lesson useful in the future? ‘”Advises Fishbach. She adds that it can be difficult to learn from failure because it damages your self-esteem and you must infer the correct answer or a more advantageous way of doing things.
Some industries where security is a number one priority, such as aviation or space travel, already have this mindset, but it’s possibly an attitude that needs to be spread more widely.
There are positive signs that this is starting in some organizations. “I’m fascinated by the growing trend for companies celebrating ‘shitty nights’ – the real name is a little more colorful,” says Fishbach. “They are essentially consequence-free opportunities for employees to come up to the microphone and talk about the mistakes they’ve made on the job.”
It takes courage to admit when things went wrong, but if more of us could do it, we would all benefit from the lessons learned.