It is often said that failure is life’s greatest teacher and I think there is a lot to learn from our mistakes and our failures, but research shows that this is not the case.  MIT researcher, Earl K. Miller, and his associates have identified that success, not failure, has a bigger impact on our learning and on future behavior.

In a study of monkeys, the researchers identified that when the subjects completed a task correctly, they were more likely to perform the task correctly in the next trial.  When they got it wrong, there was no improvement in their ability to perform the task correctly.  As the researchers stated, “Success breeds success.”

Often times as managers and leaders, we focus on the negative rather than the positive. We focus on what someone is doing wrong rather than right.  After a while, we may only make a comment when something is wrong.  After all, don’t they know that I think they’re doing a good job?  Maybe, maybe not.

But based on this study, pointing out what they did wrong will have little impact on future performance.  They may fix it in the moment, but they won’t perform any better in the future because of it.  That being said, does that mean that you should never point out mistakes?  Of course not.  Just don’t think that pointing out mistakes is the same as giving effective feedback and encouraging future success.  If you want someone to perform better in the future, point out what they did right. You should also point out what they could do even better next time but by getting them to feel good about their performance, they are going to be naturally drawn to focus on making it even better.  We focus on what makes us feel good and we avoid what makes us feel bad.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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