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Failure can be a stairway to success

Failure can be a stairway to success


Do we learn more from success or failure? Although I much prefer success, my failures have been where moststairway-to-success of my life and work lessons have been learned.

My blog has focused on the lessons we learn from toxic work cultures, bossholes, narcissistic CEO’s, and many other misery-inducing issues.  Why? Because we learn from these workplace mistakes. It is not my intent to make leaders feel guilty and run. My motivation is to tell the truth rather than sugar-coat issues.

Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, sheds light on learning from successes and failures.  Controlled laboratory experiments tell us that we, in fact, learn more from failure than success.  Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Sutton stated, “Experiencing failure does lead to more richer mental models than experiencing success.”

It amazes me how many companies don’t have time to stop and think about what they learned, but seem to have the time to keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again. — Robert Sutton

Sutton also has provided very good recommendations on post-event learning that are based on documented experiments. Below are Sutton’s recommendations to maximize learning after each event:

  1. After event reviews — whether focused on failure alone or both successes and failures — spark learning. Sure, you already knew that — but it amazes me how many companies don’t have time to stop and think about what they learned, but seem to have the time to keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.
  2. After people succeed at something, it is especially important to have them focus on what things went wrong. They learn more than if they just focus on success (so, don’t just gloat and congratulate yourself about what you did right; focus on what could go even better next time).
  3. When failure happens, the most important thing is to have an after event review to provoke sufficiently deep thinking — whether you talk about successes or failures is less important.


Kevin Kennemer is founder of The People Group based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kevin is driven by his passion for company owners and their need to earn a profit, employees' desire for a positive and fulfilling work experience, and the community that benefits when both groups do well.


  1. Mary Kaplan 4 years ago

    This is a thought provoking post. We are in the process of documenting procedures, a task well worth the effort, but really hard to get motivated to do. We have found that a key to this process is to have someone unfamiliar with the task try to do it just using the “cheat sheet.” Not surprisingly, things that seemed so easy to the person doing the task regularly were difficult for the novice, and many errors in the procedure write up are found. Once again, it is taking the time to learn while doing. Making things work better is a great goal, but actually doing it requires discipline.

    • Author
      Kevin Kennemer 4 years ago

      Hi Mary, since January hopefully you have made great progress in documenting your procedures. This is certainly an area that is NOT motivating to me but there are people who love this type of work. As long as people know they will not be fired for making a mistake, work gets completed faster and more accurately. Thanks again for being a reader of my blog.

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