George Washington and the cherry tree. A lithograph by John C. McRae, 1867, after a painting by G. G. White
Ideas for Leaders #396

How to Limit Ambiguity of Responsibility and Learn from Failure

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Key Concept

Failed experiences are not always a bad thing; they can be sources of learning, and improved performance. However, individuals do not always learn from failure. Whether they attribute that failure internally or externally has a role to play in their learning, and an additional factor is how ambiguous their responsibility for that task was. This Idea explores these factors and more.

Idea Summary

The nature and dynamics of today’s organizations are such that failures are almost inevitable; the failure of a new product initiative or the failure of an existing strategy to meet changing organizational demands are common examples. Management and psychology research has focused on highlighting tools and resources designed to help people learn from failures, and such studies have traditionally suggested that those most able to learn from failed experiences will be those most likely to succeed in the future as well.

However, a study from Ross School of Business, Kenan-Flagler Business School and Harvard Business School has demonstrated that although individuals can learn from failed experiences, they do not always do so. Internal or external attributions occur after failure (or indeed any experience) that can impact an individual’s learning from it.

Individuals are thought to typically attribute unsuccessful outcomes externally (i.e. to uncontrollable situational factors) in order to maintain a positive self-image. Some people, however, may be generally more inclined towards internal attribution. Both can alter how they engage in reflection and learning following that experience. 

Through their empirical studies, the researchers found that when responsibility is more ambiguous, individuals are less likely to internally attribute their failures, and this greater external attribution undermines their efforts to learn and improve their performance. ‘Ambiguity of responsibility’ can be described as when characteristics of the task, such as its complexity or degree of accountability, and an individual’s responsibility for performance are unclear.

Methodology: Christopher Myers, Bradley Staats and Francesca Gino conducted three studies to test their hypotheses. The first was a field study with Samasource, a non-profit data services firm, where they analyzed the work of 233 employees performing data-entry tasks over approximately eight months. 

For the second study, they recruited professionals to take part in two decision-making activities, spaced one week apart. Finally, for the third study, the researchers recruited participants to take part in the trial of a new image-labelling tool to be used in the medical profession. The idea was that this task would be challenging and unfamiliar to participants, making it more likely that they would believe feedback indicating they had failed.

Business Application

What are the practical implications of these findings for managers and leaders in organizations? According to Myers, Staats and Gino, they should strive to actively manage perceptions of ambiguity of responsibility, as this may be the key factor that results in either internal or external attribution after failure; the former is more desirable to ensure employees learn from failed experiences.
The use of after-event reviews (i.e. careful debriefing of a task experience) may be helpful, and has been highlighted by previous research as well. Myers, Staats and Gino add that organizations should also utilize strategies such as job design to help limit ambiguity of responsibility. 

Managers should also be careful to not provide alternative explanations that heighten ambiguity of responsibility for a task; instead, they should focus their attention on what happened and how failure is an activity from which individuals and organizations can learn and improve with effort. Such feedback can allow individuals to develop a mindset of growing from failure, without introducing alternative explanations for the failed experience, such as excuses or scapegoats. 

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