Even when it’s fairly obvious that negative information is best, we’re hard-wired to avoid it. Our brains simply shut out the negative information.
Consider another experiment we did. Participants were given quizzes with only two choices for answers. Half were told “Correct!” when giving the right answer. The other half saw “Incorrect!” when getting it wrong. Because there are only two options, each person should have known the correct answer no matter which feedback they received.
When we retested the participants on the same material, the ones who got positive feedback scored higher than those who got negative. People failed to learn from negative feedback.
We can learn just as much, if not more, from negative information if we’d come to confront and embrace it. That’s why I’m fascinated by a growing trend of companies holding “screw-up nights” (the actual name is a bit more colorful). They’re essentially consequence-free opportunities for employees to step up to the mic and talk about the mistakes they’ve made on the job.
Horrifying? Maybe. But think about the time, energy, and resources that could be saved if we share what doesn’t work so that others aren’t repeating the same mistakes.
Managers can also use this information to improve how they convey negative information. When you talk with an employee about a failure, make sure your approach doesn’t close their minds (Incorrect!). Take the time to discuss what can be learned from a mistake and chart a path forward so that the failure is a net positive.
We can’t eliminate mistakes. But we can make lemonade out of our lemons.
Ayelet Fishbach is the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller professor of behavioral science and marketing and IBM Corporation faculty scholar.
This column is part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.