Summary: A recent study investigated how cardiothoracic surgeons learn from failures, revealing that there is a threshold beyond which they no longer gain knowledge from their mistakes. The research highlights that this threshold varies depending on a surgeon’s perceived ability to learn.

Surprisingly, surgeons with higher perceived learning abilities reached this threshold later, suggesting they can handle larger accumulations of failure. This study underscores the complex dynamics between failure and learning, particularly in high-stakes environments like healthcare.

Do people learn from their failures? In a new study, researchers examined the high-stakes field of cardiothoracic surgery to assess the relationship between individuals’ experiences with failures and the learning outcomes associated with them.

The study found that individuals reach a threshold at which they stop learning from their failures and that this threshold is higher for surgeons with a higher perceived ability to learn.

Conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Clark University, the study is published in the Strategic Management Journal.

Individual learning is an important foundation of organizational learning, and individuals’ own experiences of failure have been highlighted as important sources of individual learning. But studies on this issue have yielded starkly contrasting findings and provided different theories to explain the results.

Theoretically, it is unlikely that failures trigger only processes conducive to learning and not those that prevent learning, and vice versa. Rather, these processes likely coexist but vary in their relative strengths, with one dominating the other under certain conditions.

“Understanding this dynamic process is crucial to predicting more effectively how a particular failure affects learning,” said Sunkee Lee, associate professor of organizational theory and strategy at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, who coauthored the study.

“This understanding becomes especially important in contexts where failures carry high stakes, such as patient-care settings.”

Researchers developed existing theories on the effect of individuals’ own failures on their learning. They also proposed and tested a theoretical model on individual learning from failure that considers the effects of individuals’ opportunity, motivation, and perceived ability to learn from their failures.

They used data on more than 300 California-based cardiothoracic surgeons who performed coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgeries in 133 hospitals between 2003 and 2018.

Failure was defined as patient deaths resulting from CABG surgeries, and individual learning was captured through improvements in surgeons’ performance after such experiences.

Surgeons’ performance increased as a function of their accumulated failures up to a point, then declined, the study found. The findings suggest that accumulating one’s own failures triggers forces that both increase the opportunity to learn and decrease the motivation to learn, and that learning depends on which force dominates.

The inflection point came later (i.e., at higher levels of accumulated failures) for surgeons who were hypothesized to have higher perceived abilities to learn—those with elite training, certified expertise, and specializations in patient care.

These individuals’ higher level of perceived ability to learn likely resulted in stronger motivation to learn and thus, reduced their vulnerability to negative emotions and attribution biases — which is the tendency to attribute outcomes to personal traits rather than situational conditions  — associated with repeated failures.

“Our findings suggest that not all experiences necessarily lead to learning, and that repeated failures can have both beneficial and harmful impacts on individuals’ learning processes,” explained Jisoo Park, assistant professor of management at Clark University’s School of Management, who coauthored the study.

“Therefore, both impacts must be considered simultaneously to understand and improve individuals’ performance.”

Because learning by individuals affects organizational learning, the study has implications for organizational design, especially in hiring and training. Organizations can improve performance by hiring employees who are more resilient to repeated failures or by training them to become so, the authors suggest.

Among the study’s limitations, the authors note that because they studied cardiac surgeons, for whom failure involved patient deaths, the negative emotions triggered by these failures or the likelihood of attribution biases were likely larger than they would be for individuals in organizations in which the stakes are lower.

In addition, the study involved situations where repeated failures were sometimes beyond individuals’ control, which might have made those individuals more likely to attribute their failures to external causes, especially as failures accumulated.

Funding: The study was supported by the Center for Organizational Learning, Innovation and Knowledge at the Tepper School.

Author: Sheila DavisSource: Carnegie Mellon UniversityContact: Sheila Davis – Carnegie Mellon UniversityImage: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.“Giving up learning from failures? An examination of learning from one’s own failures in the context of heart surgeons” by Sunkee Lee et al. Strategic Management Journal

Giving up learning from failures? An examination of learning from one’s own failures in the context of heart surgeons

We reassess existing theories on individual failure learning and propose an inverted-U-shaped relationship between an individual’s accumulated failures and learning, based on a theoretical framework that jointly considers the opportunity, motivation, and perceived ability to learn.

Using data on 307 California-based cardiothoracic surgeons who performed coronary artery bypass graft surgeries in 133 hospitals between 2003 and 2018, we find compelling evidence that individuals reach a threshold at which they discontinue learning from their own failures.

We also find that this threshold is higher for surgeons who had higher perceived ability to learn.

This article aims to shed new light on the relationship between individuals’ failure experience and their learning, and advance our understanding of the microfoundations of organizational learning, an important basis of firm performance.

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