Negative emotions rather than logical analysis might help you learn more effectively after failure

A premium is often put on the ability to suspend emotion in the face of failure, instead deploying cold, hard logic. However, a recent study suggests that such an approach could be preventing people from really learning from failure.

“How people cope with such failure can make a big difference not only in happiness but also in future success”

The research in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making suggests that failure can have all sorts of negative implications if its not approached effectively. The researchers make clear that they are not saying cognitive analysis is bad and emotion is good, or vice versa. What they wanted to flag up is that there is a place for both kinds of thinking.

In particular, those who err more towards cognitive analysis in the face of failure are more likely to fall in to the trap of self-preservation and self-justification. This is in order to protect themselves from the potentially damaging effects of failure.

The research

The main premise of the research was to explore the positive role that negative emotions might play in helping people respond to and learn from failure. The American research team suggested that a cognitive response was more likely to elicit a self-protective justification for the failure and that a negative emotional response would lead to the motivation to improve.

In addition, they flagged up the importance of subsequent tasks being similar in characteristics to the one that was originally failed. Only then would people be able to apply their learning and thus, improve.

The research team conducted three separate studies whereby:

  • Study one saw 98 undergraduate students assigned to one of four groups, either cognitive or negative emotional in response and either high similarity or low similarity follow-up tasks following the first failed task.
  • Study two was similar in design, with 93 undergraduate students assigned to one of four groups as in study one.
  • Study three had 239 undergraduate participants and differed slightly from the other studies. Where participants, in studies one and two, were told to respond cognitively or negatively emotionally before carrying out the task which they would fail; in study three they were told to respond either cognitively or negatively emotionally only after completing the failed task. In addition, participants were assigned to one of three groups – either to respond cognitively, or negatively emotionally or given no direction at all.

The findings

“Emotionally experienced failure better motivates increased effort”

In all three studies, participants exerted more effort on the follow-up tasks when they responded negatively emotionally and where the tasks were high in similarity to the first task.

In the second study, the researchers found that those operating from a more cognitive focus demonstrated self-protecting rather than self-improving behaviours.

Implications and solutions

“Focusing on emotions after a failure leads people to put in more effort”

This research poses interesting questions for organisations and practitioners who talk about the importance of logically analysing why something failed. In addition, emotional intelligence research highlights the importance of self-control and regulating emotional responses. Yet this research suggests that there are times when negative emotional responses can actually be helpful for us.

So, what does this mean in reality?

  1. Giving people time and space to talk about how they feel about a failure could help them recognise that negative reactions to failure are okay. By getting them to talk through and share negative reactions and then write down what they would do differently next time could help facilitate improvement.
  2. For work projects that have failed, getting people together to talk about the full spectrum of their reactions to that failure might facilitate future learning. Again, getting them to identify what they would do differently, only after the full spectrum of negative emotions has been aired, could lead to more insights for learning.
  3. Leaders who veer towards more cognitive (logical/analytical) responses to failure, both for themselves and their teams, might want to try sharing their emotional reactions to a failure.
  4. Asking people to learn from prior experience is only useful if the new situation they find themselves in has high similarity to the situation where they failed. This has important connotations for things like performance appraisal, where judgements can be made about whether someone has sufficiently learned from past mistakes. Managers should think about whether they are comparing apples with pears.
  5. It’s important to offer some direction for how people can effectively respond to failure. As the researchers found in the third study, those who were given no direction at all tended to veer toward self-protecting rather than self-improving behaviour.

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