Opinion: we tend to assume that failures at work are something to be avoided at all costs, but this could not be further from the truth

Failed deals, canceled projects, large-scale organisational withdrawals from foreign markets, and many other kind of failures and setbacks are inevitable part of an organisation's reality and of those working in them. While experiencing failures and setbacks do not feel good at the time, we have largely misunderstood their role in our lives.

We tend to focus on their negative consequences, such as resulting losses, embarrassment, a scolding from the supervisor, or ragging by colleagues. By doing so, we miss their positive impact; their importance and necessity for arriving at good, up-to-date decisions. The thing is, we sometimes need failures and other incidents in order to grow and develop, or even just to be able to make as solid decisions as yesterday.

The role of failures and setbacks as a driver of human development and growth has already been noted in classic writings, albeit in a relatively abstract and dramatic way. For example, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that happiness is only possible to achieve through suffering. Likewise, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote the famous quote "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings" believed that suffering provides the possibility to become a better version of yourself, which is why one should embrace and learn from it.

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Admittedly, neither of them spoke about something so pragmatic as managerial or work-related decision-making, but both recognised that negative incidents can lead to positive outcomes.

In terms of decision-making, management research has investigated the impact of failures on learning for some time. Studies suggest that failures are a good source of learning and have an accelerating impact on it, and therefore lead to better decisions as well. It has also been suggested that failures act as a triggering or initiating force for learning, which might not take place without the incident serving as a "wake-up call". This implies that gaining experience does not automatically lead to learning or help us to make better decisions.

To understand how this happens, it is critical to understand how we make decisions

First, we use mental structures to make sense of and understand the environment surrounding us. These structures are like excel sheets of our mind, they provide a rather fixed and structural platform that can be filled with the information that we pick up from our environment. They help us to make sense of this information flow based on prior experience and understanding of different situations.

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For instance, when we go to a large supermarket, we are burdened by an enormous amount of information. We are most likely surrounded by more than 60,000 different product labels and a few hundred fellow shoppers, but we only perceive a fraction of it. Noticing and understanding all of this would be just too challenging for our brains. So we economise; our mental structures help us to pick the most relevant information and turn it into a coherent and understandable form. You are most likely unable to name all the milk brands sold at your local supermarket even though you see the shelf almost daily. This is because you only pay attention to the ones relevant to you.

Second, we also have mental processes that are responsible for retrieving a suitable mental structure for a particular situation from our memory. These processes enable us to create and update mental structures to better match the prevailing conditions of the decision-making environment. However, the problem is that updating our mental structures is hard work and requires mental effort. Yet, our mental processes are absolutely lazy – or, in fact, brilliantly economical – when it comes to updating structures used for thinking, perceiving, and making decisions.

This is reflected in our thinking as well. Renowned psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explained how the human brain seeks to avoid heavy lifting – or in this case, heavy thinking – by utilising heuristics that are rule-like mental shortcuts. Instead of having to think of all the influencing factors at play, heuristics can provide rule-like guidance for action, thus saving a lot of time and mental effort.

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So, why go through the trouble of updating mental structures that help us to make sense of the surrounding world if they are working just fine? The reason is simple and quite important; these structures might have worked in the past, or even now, but not necessarily in the future. This is because the world and our environment change at an ever-increasing pace. When the decision-making environment differs from the one that the decision-makers are used to, the old mental structures might lead to inaccurate understandings and decisions based on faulty reasoning. This, in turn, can lead to unwanted outcomes.

Altogether, failures and the resulting frustration are necessary from time to time so that our mental processes are given good reason to update the mental structures that are vital for decision-making.

What does this mean for managers, our work places and work cultures? We need to realise that we often hold assumptions that failures are only associated with negative consequences and are thus condemned. But there is no reason to demonise something as inherent, inevitable, and necessary as failures. We should be more sympathetic to bad decisions, failures, and hardships, and even embrace them as they are one of the driving forces of human development. Next time you – or your colleague – stumble, remind yourself that you'll likely learn from this in order to do better in the future.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ