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Learning from workplace failure

Employees can learn from failure if their teams offer psychological safety and provide informational resources, says study co-authored by Dr Andreas Richter of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Woman in a work meeting feeling disappointed after failing at work.

Perhaps all employees, at some point, fail in ways large and small – from flubbing an entire project to misspelling a name. But how can employees learn from failure, and what environment should companies provide to help workers do so?

Previous studies reach mixed conclusions as to whether employees learn from their failure experiences at all, because many people who fail at work lose self-esteem and retreat into defensive reactions that stifle such learning.

A study forthcoming in the journal Organization Science offers a new route to learning from failure: it concludes that employees are more likely to learn from failure if they work within teams that offer psychological safety, and such learning is further enhanced if teams harbour distributed knowledge and expertise – known as a “transactive memory system” – in which group knowledge is stored and coded so team members serve as “expert memory aids” to one another.

The combination of a psychologically safe environment and such a workplace learning system can “help individuals seize the learning opportunities inherent in failure” – so the study by academics in Germany and the UK introduces a new “team-as-resource” perspective to learning from failure.

“The study takes a very different approach to how people interact with their environment after a failure experience,” says study co-author Dr Andreas Richter, Reader in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School. “Whereas previous research often portrayed the individual as a passive recipient of the workplace environment, we portray the individual as someone who can proactively engage and seek out workplace resources that help them learn from failure.”

The study – entitled “Employee learning from failure: a team-as-resource perspective” – is co-authored by Dr Hendrik Wilhelm of the University of Cologne, Dr Andreas Richter of Cambridge Judge Business School, and Professor Thorsten Semrau of Trier University.

The study has implications for employee creativity, as failure is particularly common in creative endeavours with uncertain outcomes. And while the research focused on learning from one’s own experiences, the authors hope their “team-as-resource” perspective will inspire further research on learning from other people’s failure experiences.

The study is based on a final sample of 218 employees working in 42 production and infrastructure support teams at a large German chemical company. It draws on archival data on creative failure and subsequent creativity from the employee suggestion system in which employees individually propose ideas to address issues arising in a team context.

Ideas accepted by a judging committee were rewarded with a cash premium of between a few hundred to a few thousand euros, based on novelty and usefulness to the organisation, thus providing an objective indicator of creative failure and subsequent creative outcomes. About a third of employees submitted suggestions in each of two years studied, with a 40 per cent rejection rate based on insufficient creativity.

In the study, psychological safety was measured by commonly used factors such as whether employees can bring up “problems and tough issues” within the team; whether it is difficult to ask for help within the team, and whether mistakes are “held against you” within the team. The transactive memory system of teams was measured by a scale that looks at factors such as whether individuals know which team members have expertise in certain areas that can be drawn upon.

The authors also conducted 28 personal interviews with employees, which provided additional evidence of how teams provide both support and information that stimulate individual learning from failure. For example, a person in a team with high psychological safety said: “Certainly, I talk about rejections with my fellow team members … they often give me fresh courage”, while another person in a low-psychological safety team said: “If you fail somewhere [in his team], they will chew you out.”

“Teams and the individual’s interaction with his or her team is central to the study’s findings,” says Dr Andreas Richter. “For better or worse, teams are the usual social environment for employees in the modern workplace, so the socio-emotional environment within the team and the informational resources generated by the team are pivotal factors as to whether an individual will learn from failure experiences.”

The study looks in some depth at the defensive reactions of many people who experience creative failure at work, and how they impede learning and moving on from setbacks. Often, employees seek to hide failures from others to protect their self-image, or otherwise seek to disassociate the failure from the individual – but such responses “restrict information processing and critical reflection” that stifle learning and improvement.

Beyond stifling learning, defensive reactions to failure can also trigger a vicious cycle – harming employee motivation and effort, and thus lowering subsequent creative performance and outcomes. So for an organisation, failure to provide a setting to enable employees to learn from their own failures can yield an end result far worse than merely a flubbed project.