Managers often focus on lessons learned from failures and near-misses in their organizations, to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. However, recent research published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries shows that examples of employees’ “exceptional” successes also motivate their peers to learn and succeed.
The researchers defined exceptional successes as positive outcomes that went above and beyond the intended result. In two studies, they found that while stories of “normal” successes did not motivate participants to learn, both stories of failure and exceptional success drove the participants to want to enhance their skills.
“When things go as we expect, we aren’t as motivated to learn, because we think we understand what happened and have things under control,” says paper co-author Christopher Myers, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, in a Q&A about the study. “But it’s also possible for things to go unexpectedly well, and that can be a source of learning, too (like failure).”
The role of interest in motivation to learn and grow
Myers further explains that because regular success is seen as the expected result, it doesn’t spark people’s curiosity to learn more. But because both failure and extraordinarily positive results aren’t what we anticipate, both cause employees to take notice. That interest drives their desire to find out more about how their peers either achieved such great success or what those peers did wrong so they can keep from making the same errors.
Motivation during the pandemic
With many organizations moving to remote work situations, Myers points out that the pandemic poses challenges to employees hearing such success stories. Scheduled videoconferences are the only interaction many employees have with their peers, so there are fewer opportunities to learn of such positives through office gossip or other informal encounters in the workplace.
He adds the key takeaway from his team’s research is that, while failure is an important learning tool, taking the time to share and celebrate outstanding success offers a positive way to motivate employees to learn without focusing on the negative.
“Ignoring exceptional success leaves a lot of learning value undiscovered,” he concludes in the Johns Hopkins Q&A. “Since both of these sorts of performance can motivate learning—but exceptional success doesn’t come with all the other negative implications of failure—focusing on these highly successful efforts can be a positive way of increasing peer learning in organizations.”