Cheif Learning Officer Solutions for Enterprise Productivity

The Role of Failure in Learning

 -  1/27/10

Striving to be perfect can actually limit the performance of organizations and their employees.

In corporate environments, there are two types of performers: those who strive to be perfect at all times and those who are OK with failing, picking themselves up, dusting off and starting over. Is either of these modes of operating better? For those who believe they must be perfect — at the top of their game — anything else is a waste of time, energy and resources.

But those who make it to the top of the corporate ladder aren’t necessarily the ones who have been best all along. Rather, it’s the ones who take failure as a learning opportunity.

Every individual has three orientations in encounters with new areas of discovery — avoiding, performing and learning.

The first, avoiding, is how much averting a negative consequence influences actions. For instance, say an employee is told that if he doesn’t start arriving at work on time, he’ll be fired. The threat of being fired is enough to motivate him to do what the boss requires. In this situation, failure carries huge negative consequences.

Most would discount the use of negative motivation in this day and age. Employees who are motivated in this negative way aren’t interested in getting to the top; their focus resides simply in ensuring they will bring a paycheck home.

The next, performing, is how much people choose to do something in order to be the best at it. If they can’t be the best, they stop trying because they feel if they aren’t the best it is a useless effort. In this situation, failure is viewed as totally unacceptable.

The last, learning, is exactly as the name implies — doing something to master a new skill. Here, learning becomes much more important than being the best. For those with a high learning orientation, there is no such thing as failure — rather only opportunities for learning. Interestingly, people who take this approach are often the most successful. They reach higher goals more often because every difficulty is a challenge to do better, not a reason to quit.

For many this is counterintuitive. Many assume the proof is in the pudding and folks with high performing orientations would be the most successful. It is this need to be perfect that can be the downfall of certain types of performers; it leads them to give up rather than discovering what is possible. When being the best doesn’t come naturally in a task, they move on to something else, ultimately failing by virtue of not trying.


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