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.