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The Role of Failure in Learning

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.

However, society tends to reward performers, rather than learners. All through school and life, it is not the person who learned the most who is rewarded but rather the person who came in first—the person who scored the highest. High performance is what is valued, not high learning.

The downside to this is that high performers, without balancing high learning, will ultimately quit trying when they aren’t successful. They may leave avenues with an obstacle to success unexplored.

Learners see the obstacle for what it is—a momentary blip to be dealt with. Failure is never failure; for the learner, it is simply an opportunity to learn.

The same is true for organizations. Most organizations are performance driven. The employees who perform the best are the ones who are rewarded. Those who try to improve on performance and fail are reprimanded. However, it is only in trying something new that they can improve performance, where new discoveries are made.

This is not to say that organizations should ignore performance altogether. Rather, there should be an equal emphasis on performing and learning. This combination of high learning and high performing takes organizations to the highest level of possibility. In an organization functioning in this way, the high performer would still be rewarded, along with the person willing to take the risk and try something new, regardless of complete success.

What does learning in an organization look like? Mostly, it’s willingness to question. It’s looking for new opportunities in everything the organization does. It’s looking to take the organization above the status quo. It’s not being content to sit back and do things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done. It’s being open to new possibilities.

When an organization makes asking questions a valued part of the culture, it is well on the way to becoming a learning organization. Changing culture is challenging in most organizations. It’s more than an entry in the strategic plan. It’s walking the talk at all levels of the organization. It’s frequently asking employees to shift out of their comfort zone. It’s asking all the employees of the organization to value something that wasn’t as articulately valued in the past. Adding this learning element to the culture is the only way organizations can stay ahead of the rapid change curve that has become the norm for our society.