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Lead Your Team Managing

Turn Failure Into Success by Talking About It

Turn Failure Into Success by Talking About It
Credit: Freedom My Wing/Shutterstock

If you want to be a better boss, take stock of people's failures, not just their achievement, new research suggests.

Currently, many managers looking to improve their skills try to learn from others who have succeeded when facing great challenges. A study recently published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal revealed, however, that focusing on situations where the desired outcome wasn't achieved can be just as, if not more, impactful.

"Drawing lessons from other people's failures is a particularly effective but underused form of learning," the study's authors wrote. "Hence, the best practice ... is to focus not only on others' best but also on their worst practice – and to share with others not only one's success but also one's failure stories."

The study's authors said failure stories can have more of impact than stories of triumph because stories of disappointment move people to reflect harder than tales of success do.

"Failure stories lead to more learning transfer than success stories," the study's authors wrote.

For the study, researchers studied the behavior of 50 university students. The study had participants listen to five fictional stories. A different actor portraying a manager read each story as a first-person narrative. Each story revolved around a different important aspect of management: recognizing changes, analyzing a market, managing time effectively, dealing with conflict and providing leadership. [See Related Story: How Successful Leaders Recover from Failure ]

When listening, half the participants heard stories that ended with success, and half-heard tales of failure. After each of the stories, participants wrote what they could take away from it.

To test how these "lessons" were applied to other situations, participants then read a case study about an advertising agency and were asked to answer five management questions related to issues raised in the previous success and failure stories.

For example, some participants were told to plan a meeting where an employee would be dismissed, a task that was related to one of the stories that dealt with conflict. The study's authors determined if the participants applied what they learned in the stories by whether they said they were going to prepare the "dismissed" employee for the meeting, which was discussed in the success scenario, but not the failure case.

The study's authors found that, in general, the participants were more likely to apply what they learned in the failure scenario than the success stories.

While the study looked specifically at college students, the researchers believe the results are highly pertinent to businesses.

"Our findings certainly apply to informal learning on the job – for example, to the reluctance managers may have about revealing past failures, even though such stories are particularly likely to be of value to workers who find themselves in similar situations," Ronald Bledow, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Singapore Management University, said in a statement.

The researchers say the results shouldn't be taken as a recommendation to forgo all success stories for anecdotes of failure.

"Success stories serve as inspirational examples and ... can build learners' confidence in their abilities, in particular when they see similarities between themselves and a role model," the study's authors wrote. "Failure stories may be particularly effective in learning contexts where learners need to intensively elaborate (on) a topic, to develop differential and flexible knowledge ... (or) when learners lack the motivation to elaborate on a subject because they underestimate its difficulty. Failure stories could then serve as wake-up calls."

The results should be a sign to managers that they shouldn't be so hesitant to share their personal stories of failure. Not only can it have a powerful impact on others in their organization, it can also result in manager being seen in a more positive and humane light.

"The top management team of an organization can set a powerful example by openly discussing past failures," the study's authors wrote. "Organizations can also institutionalize communication about failures by providing a platform for employees to share failed experiences."

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.