Learning from Failure in Peer Learning Groups

old male businessman

“I didn’t fail 10,000 times, I succeeded in finding 10,000 methods that wouldn’t work.”

-Thomas Edison

Our Failures are Our Closest Guarded Secrets

Research shows that talking about failure makes for happier, more productive workers. Yet we naturally shun failure. Our successes are public, and our failures are deeply private. We fear embarrassment and loss of self-worth. We respond negatively to our failures, and then we feel bad about responding that way, and so we try to cover it up instead of learning from it.

Let’s Talk About Failure

Failure makes you stronger. But only if we talk about and learn from it. After failing — publicly or privately — it can be nerve-racking to initiate a conversation with your co-workers or boss about what happened. This is particularly true if admitting failure is not a part of the organization’s practice. Ultimately, talking about failure — both during and after the fact — can help to cultivate closer relationships with colleagues. It’s healthy to ask about what went wrong in a meeting and engage other people in that process of learning.

Don’t Just Talk About Successes

Conversely, talking only about your successes is likely to elicit envy and bad feelings. In a new paper, Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School formalized two kinds of envy: malicious and benign. Malicious envy projects an image of perfection that makes others want to tear you down.  Benign envy provides new insights into success and failure and makes others want to pull themselves up.

Brooks offered four ways to avoid malicious envy and begin cultivating benign envy:

1. Don’t brag in public. If you list your accomplishments in front of coworkers, you are sure to elicit malicious envy. Remembering the challenges you encountered and had to overcome will keep you humble.

2. Highlight your struggles. For every success, there are far more failed attempts. By admitting your failures, you show that you’re only human and mistakes are part of the learning process.

3. Emphasize what you learned from failure and success. Benign envy comes from talking openly about your failures and successes. Others appreciate learning about why you failed, and it makes them more willing to listen to a success story.

4. Be honest about the role of luck. Luck plays a huge role in success, and most people are very reluctant to admit it.

 Embrace Failures

Peer Learning Groups designed by The Peer Learning Institute start off with a reflection on what went wrong or failed in a work-related situation. For example, “Think about a situation when you didn’t manage to resolve a thorny issue in your team,” begins the learning module for Dealing With Sticky Issues in the Workplace.

In a controlled and trustful environment of peers who have experienced similar challenges, the group participants can process the failure in a constructive way. Being honest will make them vulnerable, but that will open channels of deeper communication and learning. Failing is experimenting, and experimenting is learning, as Edison said. We only fail if we fail to learn from our failures, and instead cover them up with excuses or blame bad luck.

Fail Intelligently: Learn from It

Not all failures are made equal. Amy Edmondson, a professor in leadership and management at Harvard Business School, has identified three kinds of failures: preventable failure, complex failure and intelligent failure. The latter two have the greatest potential to promote learning in the workplace.

“Complex failures occur when we have good knowledge about what needs to be done. We have processes and protocols, but a combination of internal and external factors come together in a way to produce a failure outcome,” Ms. Edmondson said. It’s difficult to assign responsibility for complex failures, but staying vigilant about these kinds of mistakes can help improve existing processes.

Similarly, intelligent failures occur when we’re working in areas in which we don’t have expertise or experience, or in areas that are uncharted. When an intelligent failure is buried or goes undiscussed, others risk repeating the exact same mistakes. The result? Increasingly inefficient organizations that replicate, instead of learning from, the same mistakes.

No Failure Left Behind

Peer learning groups embrace failures big and small in all their richness and depth. You will do your managers and organization a great favor by organizing peer learning groups that value talking about failure as a critical first step toward improving workplace performance.

Peter Korynski

Co-founder and Chief Program Officer

The Peer Learning Institute

By the way, we are presenting at Training 2019 in Orlando, Florida in February. If you’re interested in attending,you can get a $200 discount when you use Discount Code TSP2 for a new registration. Please let me know if you plan to attend and we can arrange to get together.

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