THOUGHTS | The Impala Blog

Do Executives really learn from failures?

4. November 2021

It is a commonly-held belief that you learn more from failure than from success. A search on the term “Learn from failure” returns 610 million matches and it is standard practice in development programs to choose failure as the best learning exercise.

A couple of years ago, we were asked by the CEO of a global Pharmaceutical company to design a leadership case on a failed regional headquarter closing, which ended up severely hurting the public perception of the company and its leaders.

During the design process, we found out that most of the leaders who were held accountable for the failure were invited to attend the program in which the case was going to be presented and discussed.

Worried about the consequences for the meeting and our team’s success, we scheduled a meeting with the CEO to raise our concerns. He was known as an outstanding leader, who valued the power of learning by continuously challenging his leadership team. When we told him that we planned to put many of the senior attendees on the spot, he reflected and replied “strong leaders will enjoy it.”. He also encouraged us to emphasize his failures in the headquarter shutdown.

We designed a very unique case, using video interviews with the accountable leaders, affected employees, union representatives and government officials. We also engaged the world’s best faculty on the topic of negotiations.

The case created a lively discussion during the meeting. At the end of the meeting, to our surprise, the feedback collected was disappointing and didn’t meet our high expectations. The overall ratings were not more than average.

We decided to dig deeper and analyzed the individual evaluations. We quickly noticed a clear pattern. The vast majority of leaders who were involved in the real-life case rated the session low to very low. Those participants who had no involvement at all, rated it very high.

How could this be explained? Is learning from your mistakes a myth?

New research from the Chicago Booth School of Business provides the answer. Contrary to common belief, people learn less from personal failure than from personal success. All experiments demonstrated that learning from failure is a matter of self-esteem and very often the ego gets in the way. Or, to quote how research leader, Prof. Ayelet Fishbach, phrased it: “it just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.”

It became very clear that the degree of learning depends on the level of motivation and ego. Failure threatens your ego and exposes your vulnerability to others, which causes people to disconnect.

In an additional experiment, the personal factor was removed and participants were asked to discuss someone else’s success or failure. The new experiment showed that they had learned as much from other people’s failures as from other’s successes.

Today, many organizations still consider “learning from failure important”. However, very few of them actually had the right approach to it, as they were looking at failure the wrong way.

If you are interested to learn from success, especially about one of the world’s most interesting business transformation go to: