Not all failures lead to learning, shows study

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A recent study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Clark University sheds new light on the complex relationship between failure and learning, particularly in high-pressure environments like cardiothoracic surgery.

Published in the Strategic Management Journal, the research explores whether experiencing failures always contributes to individual learning, finding that this is not always the case.

In fields where the stakes are exceptionally high, such as surgeries where patient lives are at risk, the impact of failure on learning can vary significantly among individuals.

The study focused on more than 300 cardiothoracic surgeons in California, analyzing their performance in coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgeries across 133 hospitals from 2003 to 2018.

The researchers defined failure as instances where patients died during or after surgery, and they measured learning by any improvement in the surgeons’ subsequent performances.

The findings reveal that surgeons do learn from failures up to a certain point. However, after experiencing too many failures, their ability to learn declines.

This turning point is higher for surgeons who believe more strongly in their own ability to learn from past mistakes—typically those with more prestigious training, certifications, and specializations.

Associate Professor Sunkee Lee from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, a co-author of the study, emphasizes the importance of understanding how failure affects learning.

“In high-stakes environments like healthcare, recognizing how and when learning from failure diminishes can lead to better outcomes,” Lee stated.

The study introduces a theoretical model that considers how opportunity, motivation, and perceived ability to learn influence learning outcomes from failures. It suggests that while failures provide the opportunity to learn, they also reduce motivation over time, especially after repeated failures. The balance between these opposing forces determines whether learning will continue or stall.

Surgeons with a higher perceived learning ability are more motivated and less affected by negative emotions and biases that often accompany repeated failures.

These biases include attributing failures to personal shortcomings rather than external factors, which can demoralize individuals and hinder learning.

Assistant Professor Jisoo Park from Clark University, who also co-authored the research, explains, “Our findings indicate that not every experience of failure leads to learning. Both the positive and negative impacts of repeated failures need to be considered to fully understand and enhance individual performance.”

This study has practical implications for organizational design, especially in selecting and training employees who are more resilient to the effects of repeated failures.

By focusing on resilience training and choosing individuals who are less likely to be overwhelmed by failure, organizations can improve overall performance and learning.

The research acknowledges limitations, noting that the emotional weight of patient deaths in cardiac surgery might exaggerate the impact of failure compared to less critical situations.

Additionally, surgeons may attribute repeated failures to external causes, especially when they feel that these failures are beyond their control.