Either analyze your mistakes or repeat them

We are hard-wired to avoid negative information, but we need to change

Ayelet Fishbach says a raise might not motivate you

Ayelet Fishbach | Apr 21, 2020

Imagine stepping up to a microphone in front of all of your co-workers and managers and telling the story of the worst mistake you’ve made at work.

If this idea is horrifying, you are not alone. We don’t like to talk about our failures. Not only does it damage our egos, but we have a vested interest in keeping these kinds of stories from the people who determine our salaries and whether we have continued employment.

Even when we know logically that sharing negative information or learning from it is for the best, we tend not to do it. A fellow Chicago Booth colleague and I showed this through a simple experiment. We gave people three boxes with different amounts of money under each—80 cents, 20 cents, and minus 1 cent. After they’d made two choices—in which they won 20 cents and lost 1 cent—they were allowed to tell the next participant which box had won them 20 cents or which had lost them 1. They could share the information they learned from either success or failure. 

Logically, we should tell the next person where the negative amount is. That way the next person gets a positive value no matter which of the remaining boxes they pick. Yet, more than 40 percent of the time, the player pointed out the 20-cent box, giving the next person a 50-50 chance of winning or losing. 

We did a similar experiment in which we told the players we would reveal to them either the 20-cent box or the negative box. Again, it makes the most sense to want to learn about the negative box so that you can avoid it and have a small or a large win. But one-third asked to know where the 20-cent box was.

Think about the time, energy, and resources that could be saved if we share what doesn’t work so that others aren’t repeating the same mistakes.

Even when it’s fairly obvious that negative information is best, we’re hard-wired to avoid it. Our brains simply shut out the negative information. 

Consider another experiment we did. Participants were given quizzes with only two choices for answers. Half were told “Correct!” when giving the right answer. The other half saw “Incorrect!” when getting it wrong. Because there are only two options, each person should have known the correct answer no matter which feedback they received.

When we retested the participants on the same material, the ones who got positive feedback scored higher than those who got negative. People failed to learn from negative feedback.

We can learn just as much, if not more, from negative information if we’d come to confront and embrace it. That’s why I’m fascinated by a growing trend of companies holding “screw-up nights” (the actual name is a bit more colorful). They’re essentially consequence-free opportunities for employees to step up to the mic and talk about the mistakes they’ve made on the job.

Horrifying? Maybe. But think about the time, energy, and resources that could be saved if we share what doesn’t work so that others aren’t repeating the same mistakes.

Managers can also use this information to improve how they convey negative information. When you talk with an employee about a failure, make sure your approach doesn’t close their minds (Incorrect!). Take the time to discuss what can be learned from a mistake and chart a path forward so that the failure is a net positive.

We can’t eliminate mistakes. But we can make lemonade out of our lemons. 

Ayelet Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller professor of behavioral science and marketing and IBM Corporation faculty scholar.

This column is part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.