A silver lining in other people’s failures?

Most of us spend most of our lives in organizations. And, whether we intend to or not, many of us start to identify with our organizations—they become a part of who we are. “I’m a professor at Johns Hopkins,” I might say. “I’m a manager at General Electric,” might you.

Having identified with our organization, it makes us uncomfortable when another member of our organization fails, especially if they fail big-time (e.g., by making a patently poor decision or public misstatement). Indeed, my recent research with coauthor Sun Young Kim shows that the failure of a colleague creates cognitive dissonance—a sense of discomfort about the inconsistency between the failed actor’s behavior and our own image as a member of the organization. But the research also reveals a step that could make our own lives more negotiable in the aftermath: working a bit harder. Here, I thought I’d tell you more about the finding and what it might mean for you.

First the finding: in three studies spanning a range of failures and individuals, we found that the failure of a colleague makes us uncomfortable on the colleague’s behalf. And since the colleague is a member of our own organization, it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. To relieve the discomfort and reaffirm our own self-image, we work a bit harder at our own work task. In short, working harder seems to make people feel a bit better about a colleague’s failure.

So what does that mean for you? Well, first let me say what it doesn’t mean: it obviously doesn’t mean that you or your organization should encourage people to fail in hopes of stimulating other people’s effort. In the paper, we call that “patently unwise.” It doesn’t even mean that you should start seeing your organization’s failures in positive terms, as failures are obviously traumatic, and the associated additional effort will eventually burn everyone out.

But here’s what it might mean: if you see a colleague fail, you might be able to help yourself feel better by shifting your attention away from your identity as a member of the organization, and toward your own work task. By doubling down and trying harder, you may be able to remind yourself that you weren’t the source of the failure, potentially putting yourself on the fast-track once the organization recovers, or at least bolstering your resume for future opportunities.

And what if you lead an organization where someone fails? Well, you could choose to blame it on a bad apple and move on. Or you could choose to point out that the failure might’ve befallen anyone in the organization, and everyone should be on-guard to make sure it’s not them the next time. Our research suggests the latter might actually be more reparative by reminding people that they share an organizational identity with the person who failed. In addition to putting them on-guard, this approach may help them to work through their own psychological trauma more quickly. Obviously a recommendation to use in small doses, but still something to consider.

Failures are bad. Life immediately becomes less negotiable once one happens. But we might be able to make our own lives more negotiable by moving on, redoubling our own work efforts, and reviving our own self-regard.

Have you ever felt the need to work harder after someone else’s failure?

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