‘My Bad!’ How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure

by Christopher G. Myers, Bradley R. Staats & Francesca Gino

Overview — As scholars and practitioners have observed, failure clearly presents a valuable opportunity for learning in organizations. All too often, however, the opportunity is lost. Indeed, prior studies on the topic suggest that, perhaps ironically, such learning often fails to occur. In this paper the authors begin to uncover when and why individuals are more likely to learn from failed experiences. Specifically, they present evidence from three studies that support a conceptual model of learning from failure as operating through individuals' internal attributions of failure, driven in part by low ambiguity of responsibility, that lead to increased learning effort and subsequent improvement. The paper thus makes theoretical advances and carries implications for managers. Theoretically, the authors focus attention on the role of attribution in learning from failure, showing that attribution style is an important moderator of the relationship between failure and learning. Next, they identify a key situational determinant of individuals' responses to failure: ambiguity of responsibility. Third, they highlight the key role of effort as a mechanism for the effects of learning from failure. For managers, these results emphasize a specific measure that organizational leaders might take before an experience to enhance learning: actively managing perceptions of ambiguity of responsibility. Key concepts include:

  • This paper offers a more nuanced view of learning that provides an integrated conceptual model for understanding individual learning from failure.
  • Managers in organizations should think carefully about how ambiguity of responsibility is likely to play out in their context, utilizing strategies such as job design to help to limit this effect.
  • Upfront planning might remove possible barriers that would increase ambiguity of responsibility. Feedback could influence these ambiguity perceptions as well.

Author Abstract

Learning in organizations is a key determinant of individual and organizational success, and one valuable source of this learning is prior failure. Previous research finds that although individuals can learn from failed experiences, they do not always do so. To explain why this is true, we explore how individuals process failed experiences as a potential source of learning. Drawing on attribution theory, we conceptualize the differential impact that internal (self-focused) and external (factors outside of one's control) attributions after failure may have on individuals' learning and identify a key factor that shapes whether individuals attribute failure internally or externally, namely perceived ambiguity of responsibility. We hypothesize that when perceived ambiguity of responsibility is low rather than high, individuals will be more likely to attribute their failure internally and in turn devote more effort to learning and improving. We test our hypotheses using data collected in field and laboratory settings. This multi-method approach supports our theoretical model and permits us to gain further insight into how learning from failure occurs for individuals in work organizations.

Paper Information