How letting your people fail helps them learn
  • leadership
  • Blog post

How letting your people fail helps them learn

As an enlightened, caring, effective leader, you don’t want your people to fail, do you?

Well, of course you don’t want them falling on their backsides when they’re given mission-critical tasks, or when the outcome of failure would be disastrous. But research shows that small failures actually help people learn, and you sometimes may want to let your people struggle with work they’re not completely ready for.

The numerous researchers who have studied this phenomenon call it “productive failure.”

Hard problems, no guidance

In one study, researchers set up two learning experiences for math students. One group got a lecture followed by practice — the traditional model of instruction. The other students, the ones in the “productive failure” group, got hard math problems to solve on their own with no guidance. These learners failed over and over. Then, after that frustrating experience, they received traditional instruction.

When both groups were tested afterwards, the productive-failure group scored 10% higher than the other group.

But wait, there’s more. In a second stage of the study, students were asked to apply what they’d learned to a novel situation. This time, 50% of the productive-failure group passed, versus only 21% of the traditional-instruction group.

That’s a dramatic difference. It suggests that productive failure may help our brains make connections and perceive general principles that guide us when we’re confronted with unfamiliar challenges.

Points to remember

What does this research mean for you as a leader?

It suggests that in general it’s okay to let people fail – in low-stakes situations – as long as they learn from their mistakes. This isn’t a complicated idea, but managers should remember a few key points:

  • When a person is struggling, you might be tempted to step in and “save the day,” preventing the person from failing. But this derails the productive failure process. Resist the temptation.
  • Let your team know your attitude toward failure. As in, “We have a culture of innovation and risk-taking. Seek opportunities to go outside your comfort zone, make mistakes, and learn from them. Failure is okay.”
  • Always ask after a failure, “What did you learn from this?” or “How will you do that differently next time?” or even “What principles, or rules-of-thumb, can help guide you in the future?”

Keep in mind that productive failure is so useful because it doesn’t just make people more effective at a specific task. It also makes them more adaptable in unfamiliar situations. As a leader, you can optimize productive failure by providing positive feedback and framing mistakes as an essential part of learning.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Productive Failure: Why Great Leaders Embrace It.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Kapur, M. (2014) Productive Failure in Learning Math. Cognitive Science, 38(5), 1008-1022.

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