Managing by Mistakes


Management gurus have often suggested that failure should be rewarded (if the individual was trying something new), or at least not punished. We all know the problems that develop when employees become fearful and conservative – creativity is stifled, and performance suffers.

It turns out that there’s more to this concept than just repressed innovation. Our brains are wired to learn from failure, both as children and adults. The way we deal with success and failure in our efforts is a big factor in determining future performance.

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes research in which young students are given a test and, after grading, are praised for their results. Here’s the twist: one group of subjects was praised for their intelligence, while the other group was praised for their effort. The latter group, it was found, outperformed the “smart” group in subsequent testing.

The reason the students praised for their hard work did better, apparently, was because they spent more time looking at their mistakes and learning from viewing the work of those who did better. The students who were told they were smart tended not to engage in such critical self-examination, and ended up actually showing a decline in subsequent testing.

Adults who engage in studying their mistakes can also excel over time. Lehrer recounts examples like chess master Gary Kasparov and TV director Herb Stein. These and other high-level performers spend a great deal of time not celebrating success but rather looking for little things they did wrong which, if corrected, might lead to better results in the future.

Why Your Brain Learns From Mistakes

Lehrer attributes the success via failure to the training of our brain’s dopamine neurons. Experiments have shown that our brains can determine, for example, which of two decks of cards have more favorable outcomes based on experience long before we are consciously aware of it. As Lehrer puts it,

Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.

The neuromanagement principle here is that managers should encourage their employees to learn from those things that didn’t work. Failures may be unpleasant to dwell on, but if they can be viewed as a learning experience they can have a positive impact on future results. Beyond “celebrating failure” as suggested by some management experts, “analyzing failure” is the key to training our brains to do better next time.

  1. Sharon McGann says

    I like the effort you have put into this article and would encourage you to take it one step further and give praise where it is really due – to the efforts of educational researcher Carol Dweck 🙂

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Actually, Sharon, I talk about Dweck’s works in my longer post on the results of her research: How to Praise Your Child. Thanks for stopping by!


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