The Facts About Feedback Related to Failure

November 13, 2019 8:26 pm

Do you believe people learn more from feedback about their failures or their successes?

If you are like 95% of the people we surveyed as part of our recent Research Briefing, you believe failure is the best teacher – but science tells a different story.

In five different studies*, scientists found that people learn less from feedback about failure than success. Our experience in providing coaching and training for people ranging from CEO’s to front line employees supports this finding.

The reason people don’t learn as much as they could from feedback about failure is that making even small mistakes can feel threatening. This is because we are social beings that want to make a valuable and valued contribution. When we believe we could be judged negatively by others it sets off the brain’s Social Pain Radar – which is constantly scanning the environment for threats – thereby reducing the brainpower available for processing and learning from the feedback.

It is hard to deliver meaningful, motivating and helpful feedback.

Providing feedback, coaching others and even simply having a ‘difficult conversation’ requires the right mindset and the right skill set. Despite the fact that we expect leaders to give helpful feedback, to coach others and to ‘call out’ mistakes and transgressions, most people have never received any education or training to build their capacity to do this work.

Participants in our simulation-based leaderships assessments, most of whom are highly successful senior leaders, routinely avoid or delay providing feedback or dealing with ‘difficult issues’ even when not doing so could put the business at risk. Likewise, 96% of a recent sample of successful leaders indicated they or others in their organisation avoided or delayed addressing business-critical issues – if addressing these issues involved a ‘difficult conversation’ (68% acknowledged avoiding ‘often’ or ‘frequently’).

The consequences for the business can include: unaddressed ethical breaches, critical deadlines missed, pet projects/programs continued well past the time it was obvious they were a waste of resources, not to mention reduction in trust when leaders advocate transparency and honesty but avoid calling out mistakes and misbehaviour. Individuals also suffer from not gaining insight and thus do not have the opportunity to change their behaviour before it is too late.

This all changes once people acquire the competence and confidence to conduct these conversations effectively. Having the right mindset and skillset clears the way for more frequent and effective feedback – conversations that promote learning rather than avoidance.

Neuroscience provides clues for building competence and confidence?

Acquiring any complex skill requires instruction and practice in a psychologically safe, constructive environment – the ability to have difficult conversations is no different. Most people benefit from iterative experimentation, supportive coaching and practice. Even as few as two opportunities to practice having ‘difficult conversations’ or giving feedback, change the neural patterns in our brains and can significantly shift both competence and confidence.

On the contrary, simply being exposed to a ‘feedback model’ or reminded of the corporate values is not sufficient to shift confidence or competence. In fact, either of these approaches could make the situation worse by making leaders feel like having had the training, they ‘should’ now be motivated and know how to conduct these conversations.

When helping people learn from their failures we have to remember that failure ‘feels personal’. Human beings want to contribute and stay connected to others. When we fail to deliver value or what is expected, it is rightfully concerning. It takes effort and skill to create the right conditions to enable people to ‘hear’ and make use of the feedback.

We live in a fast-paced world that requires constant learning and agility. We need to build the capacity to learn and help others learn from success as well as failure. Taking the time to strengthen this essential leadership skill will improve learning at the individual and organisational level.


Dr Connie Henson, author of BrainWise Leadership, runs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through her company Learning Quest.

For more information on our group-based development program or TalentFAST™ which is Learning Quest’s unique individualised leadership program that helps leaders build their capacity to help their people learn and be perform their best, please contact Dr Connie Henson or Grainne Davidson:

Photo credit: Abigail Keenan on Unsplash


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