What’s Positive about Failure?

March 28, 2014

By: Christopher Myers

“You work with the Center for Positive Organizations, but you’re doing an experiment where you make everyone fail?” This was a reaction I got one day when describing some of my research on how individuals learn from their failed experiences. It was a reasonable question – failure, on its face, doesn’t appear to be something all that positive. Indeed, failures and other adverse events don’t crop up often in the mental picture many people have of a positive organization; usually people imagine a successful, upbeat workplace with bright walls and happy people. Failure and adversity don’t really fit that vision.

Yet, the most positive behaviors are often those that emerge from reactions to adversity. In fact, one of the events that propelled the early growth of the Center for Positive Organizations was the attack of September 11, 2001. A number of faculty members got together in the wake of that day to think about how research in positive organizational scholarship and positive psychology could inform the reaction to this crisis. The result was a series of essays called “Leading in Trying Times,” which have since become a profound set of readings on positive reactions to crisis and adversity.

I was reminded of this link between adversity and positivity during a recent Positive Links Speaker Series session, where Afton Hassett discussed her research on the role of positive affect and resilience in the medical treatment of patients with chronic pain. She described in particular one of her studies showing that positive affect significantly reduced the development and severity of chronic pain in patients newly diagnosed with Lyme disease (which often causes weakness, exhaustion, and potentially debilitating pain). Based on these findings, Afton posed a question: “How can we make chronic pain diagnoses an opportunity to boost affect and resilience for patients?”

While most negative events in organizations are thankfully less severe than chronic pain, we nonetheless experience failures and setbacks quite regularly at work, and the question of how to make these negative events an opportunity to boost resilience is an important one. The environment that we create at work can have a tremendous influence on our ability to “bounce back” and respond resiliently to a failure. For instance, recent research by JP Stephens, Emily Heaphy, Abraham Carmelli, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Jane Dutton finds that our relationships with others at work, and in particular our ability to effectively express emotions with others, drive both individuals’ and teams’ resilience.

Likewise, leaders play a role in shaping the work environment, and can also change how people respond to failures or setbacks. Leaders set the tone for how a team or organization handles failure – whether (or not) they take a resilient approach and see failure as a developmental opportunity to grow and learn.

As an example of this kind of leadership, one of my favorite management fables is that of IBM chairman Thomas Watson Sr., who purportedly brought to his office a young executive responsible for an error that cost the company $600,000. Expecting to be fired, the executive had already packed his desk and turned in his keys when he went to Watson’s office. Yet when he came in, Watson simply began asking him about the details of an upcoming project. “Aren’t you going to fire me?” the executive asked, to which Watson replied, “Fire you? I just spent $600,000 training you. Why would I want someone else to hire that kind of experience?”

This recognition of failure as a learning opportunity by a leader sends a powerful message throughout a team or organization. It encourages people to take a more resilient, developmental approach to the inevitable failures that happen in life (rather than hiding, avoiding or ignoring them), helping motivate their learning and improvement.

Indeed, in the experiment I mentioned earlier, Francesca Gino (of Harvard University), Bradley Staats (of the University of North Carolina) and I examine individuals’ differing reactions to failure, finding that when individuals accept and internalize a failure, they learn and improve their performance significantly more than those who externalize or blame their failure on outside forces.1

So for those in organizations that seek to promote a thriving, positive workplace, it’s critical to mind the environment to make sure that it is providing a developmental space for people to respond resiliently to failures, setbacks and other adversities (both big and small). As a long line of research by Gretchen Spreitzer reminds us, a key component of individuals’ thriving at work is related to the opportunity for ongoing learning and improvement embedded in their work environment.

In other words, it’s easy to feel like a workplace is “positive” when things are going well, resources are flush, and success is coming easily. But perhaps the real secret of a truly positive organization is its ability to create growth and resilience in the face of intense challenge and adversity. There’s almost always something beneficial that can come from failure. I’m positive.

[1] We further find that ambiguous responsibility in the work context makes this externalization of failure, and subsequent reduction in learning, more likely (see “My Bad: Effects of Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility on Learning from Failure.” Paper to be presented at the Academy of Management Meetings, 2014).

Chris Myers is the Center for Positive Organizations’ Doctoral Research Fellow.