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Why we learn best when others fail

We’re told that experience is the best teacher. We’re reassured that we can learn from failure. In recent years, we’ve gone so far as to argue that we need to celebrate failure. Mantras like “fail more” or “fail faster” adorn many office walls where our prized motivational posters used to hang.

There are definitely positive lessons to be learned from failure, but new research suggests that the failure of others might be a better source of learning than our own shortcomings or missteps.

Researchers led by Emory University’s Diwas KC recently examined the experiences of cardiovascular surgeons to uncover whether success or failure was the better teacher — and, if so, whose failure held better lessons? The team analyzed data from 71 cardiothoracic surgeons over 10 years as they performed over 6,500 minimally invasive coronary artery bypass grafts, a complicated and relatively new procedure at the time of the study.

They examined the rates of successful and unsuccessful procedures and also the process by which the surgeons were learning and improving their performance. As they analyzed the data, they found something striking: Failure is the best teacher mostly when someone else has failed. Surgeons learned best from their own successes and the failure of others; their failures were much harder to learn from.

One possible explanation for this is attribution theory — specifically, self-serving bias and fundamental attribution error. Taken together, these psychological biases predict that individuals more often attribute their success to their own efforts and their failures to outside circumstances, while simultaneously doing the opposite for others — assuming others’ failures are caused by their efforts and their success’ by outside circumstances.

In the case of the surgeons, their own failures made for difficult learning material, since self-serving bias made it more difficult for them to notice and correct their own faulty actions. The failures of others, however, created a perfect learning laboratory, as they could observe actions similar to theirs but free of the tendency to attribute the outcome to bad luck. Interestingly, as the surgeons became more confident in their own abilities by accumulating successful operations, they also became more likely to reflect on their failures and learn from them.

The results carry strong implications for leading organizations. While the recent efforts to view failure more positively are a good start, perhaps leaders need to spend more time reframing individual failures as positive learning experiences. Seeing the failures in others not only aids learning, but helps to make one’s own failures less appear less threatening.

In addition, organizations can help increase the learning of their members by taking time to review and reflect upon successes. Most often, when a project or procedure is successful, individuals are moved on to new projects without the benefit of a “post-op” review. Establishing a “post-op” protocol for every failure and every success might ensure that experience becomes the best teacher, regardless of whether that experience was a success or a failure.

David Burkus is a professor of management at Oral Roberts University and editor of LDRLB, an online resource that offers insights from research on leadership, innovation and strategy.