When Failure Inspires Success

Why openly sharing stories of failure leads to better learning.

BAD EVENTS HAVE MORE IMPACT on people’s thinking than good ones do, but management education largely overlooks that fact, according to a new study by Ronald Bledow of Singapore Management University, Bernd Carette of KPMG Belgium, Jana Kühnel of Ulm University in Germany, and consultant Diana Bister.

“Best-selling managerial books and case studies, such as Jim Collins’ Good to Great or General Electric’s success story during Jack Welch’s reign, are expressions of a one-sided focus on other people’s successes,” they write. “Although [case studies] typically describe a manager whose organization is facing a challenging situation that could lead to failure, virtually all of the cases turned into successes for the organization.”

The researchers conducted experiments with 50 students who listened to five fictional stories that dealt with various aspects of management, from change management to conflict resolution. Half the participants heard stories that ended with success, and half heard tales of failure. After listening to each story, participants were asked to reflect on how it might be useful to them.

Researchers then presented participants with a case study about an advertising agency and asked them to respond to five management questions related to issues in the previous scenarios. Two independent raters—who did not know whether participants had listened to stories of success or failure— found that, in general, failure scenarios proved significantly more likely to result in learning transfer.

Nonetheless, researchers believe success stories have their place. “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 authors note. They believe failure stories could be especially effective when learners need to develop flexible knowledge or when they lack the motivation to study a topic intensively because they underestimate its difficulty. “Failure stories could then serve as wake-up calls,” they write.

The authors recommend that organizations create cultures where all employees are willing to share their failures. “The top-management team of an organization can set a powerful example by openly discussing past failures,” they write. “Organizations can also institutionalize communication about failures by providing a platform for employees to share failed experiences.”

“Learning from Others’ Failures: The Effectiveness of Failure Stories for Managerial Learning” appears in the March issue of Academy of Management Learning & Education.