- Blog post
‘My bad’: How to help employees forgive themselves for failures – and do better
What do you do when an employee messes up an important assignment, something they had the savvy and experience to accomplish, but for some reason didn’t?
Well, you could:
- Gloss over it
- Chew them out, or
- Give them a pep talk
Uh-huh. If that’s your range of solutions, you’ve left out the one that works.
If you gloss over it, you’ve lost an opportunity to coach the person and hold them accountable. If you chew them out, you risk crushing their confidence. And if you give them a pep talk, you’re probably wasting your time.
What? The old tradition of the pep talk doesn’t work? Generations of football and basketball coaches have been wasting their time in the locker room at halftime? Surely if you help an employee feel better about themselves — pointing out how they’ve succeeded in the past — it’ll restore their confidence, won’t it?
Nope, at least not according to an experimental study from the University of California-Berkeley on how messaging influences motivation. The study’s message in a nutshell: To restore motivation after a failure, try a little tenderness — with yourself.
Participants were divided into three groups and given a test designed to make most of them fail. The researchers wanted to see how failure would affect their motivation to study for a second exam. One group, the control, was simply given their test scores. The second group also got feedback aimed at bolstering their self-image, such as, “You must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley.” With the third group, the reseasrchers acknowledged the failure but encouraged the test-takers to be kind to themselves. They told them, “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone,” and “Try not to be too hard on yourself.”
The results were revealing. The second group, the one that got the pep talk, didn’t do any better than the control group. But the third group, who were encouraged to forgive themselves, were more motivated to prep for the follow-up exam than the second group and did better on it. They spent an average of 33% more time studying, and performed 6% better.
Compassion and accountability
So why was the self-forgiveness message effective? According to lead researcher Juliana Breines, “People who were taught to be kind to themselves felt more motivated to see their mistakes as a chance for growth. Outside validation (the pep talk) didn’t seem to matter as much.”
But is it really a good idea to let people off the hook when they fail? What happens to accountability? Actually, the researchers didn’t let anyone off the hook. They acknowledged the failures. In fact, self-forgiveness requires people to accept that they failed.
A pep talk, by contrast, can gloss over failures. It can imply that the mistake wasn’t serious, or “just happened.” But by minimizing failures, you remove the employee’s motivation to examine them, so they’re more likely to happen again.
The brilliance of the self-compassion technique is that it allows people to accept that they made a mistake without being demotivated.
Here’s a three-step model, derived from the research, that you can use to help your employees recover from mistakes and get back on track:
- Acceptance. People need to acknowledge that they made a mistake. Help employees own their failures.
- Forgiveness. Encourage employees to forgive themselves, using language similar to that used in the study. Say, “This is a tough job. You’re not the only one who’s had trouble.” Or, “Try not to beat yourself up too much over this.”
- Planning. Finally, get employees to plan the way forward. Help them figure out how to fix the damage if possible, and how to avoid making a similar mistake next time.
This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module, “How to Help Employees Bounce Back After a Failure,” based on the following research study: Breines, J.G. & Chan, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9): 1133-1143.