George Mason University

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Study says failure should always be an option

September 12, 2017   /   by Damian Cristodero

Matt Cronin

If Matt Cronin, associate professor of management at George Mason University, could give CEOs a piece of advice, he would tell them that, sometimes, failure is good.

There is no success, he would say, without failure.

“Failure is the first attempt in learning,” Cronin said in his George Mason office. “A project or product that is very influential is sometimes decades in the making with a lot of mess-ups.”

In short, he said, people should have permission to fail.

That is the conclusion of a study called “Cultivating the Confidence Cycle.” Cronin was part of the research team for the project, which was presented at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The two-year study, in which workers from companies in the United States, Brazil and South Africa were tracked, was developed and run by a team that included Cronin and Georgetown University professors Catherine Tinsley and Jason Schloetzer. It was funded and executed by a large multinational company.

It found that when an organization’s culture shifted workers’ beliefs about failure—making it OK to fail—employees, on average, were 30 percent more confident and made similar gains in performance.

Confident workers also are optimistic about the future, more likely to be innovative at work, and more likely to overcome workplace challenges, the study said.

That confidence comes from feeling that an organization will let its employees fail and learn, Cronin said. Such learning leads to innovation and can create new practices that outperform the current best practices.

“Best practices assumes we already know the best way to do something, and it leaves no room to try and fail,” he said. “Anytime you think about getting beyond where you can get by just following the rules, you are likely to be wrong. You either say, ‘I was wrong, I failed, the end,’ or ‘What did I do incorrectly there? What should I change?’”

That positive thinking must start at the top, Cronin said.

Consider the field experiment in which groups of salespeople from a large company were shown a video, ostensibly from their company, with a positive, reinforcing message.

“Setbacks, bumps and failures are a normal part of everyone’s journey,” the message said. “In fact, these obstacles are future successes in disguise. Failures are a launching pad, which inspires us to think creatively and positively.”

Those who received the message had, on average, 22 percent higher sales, than those who did not, said the report, which attributed the gains to what the video reinforced about the organization’s culture.

“It’s absolutely about the culture of a company,” Cronin said. “You can’t just have a good manager, and it can’t be just lip service. It has to be something you believe to give people freedom.”

Which brings us back to that message Cronin would like to deliver to those CEOs.

“People need to feel their effort is appreciated while it’s in progress, not just after it happens,” Cronin said. “It has to be baked into the culture.”