Is Failure Feedback Effective?

Is Failure Feedback Effective?

A client of mine explained a situation that prompted me to question a recent research study. The study examined the effectiveness of “Failure” Feedback. 

The Situation

My client, a restaurant manager who we will call Fred, had pointed out a mistake made by one of his cashiers who we will call Ralph.  Ralph was helping to assemble “to-go” orders, and he forgot to include cookies that were added as a promotion to some of the orders.  Fred was under a tight deadline to have a fairly large order ready to be picked up in a few minutes. It had been a busy night with no end in sight.  The kitchen was in the weeds so the atmosphere was tense.  Fred told me that he noticed the mistake and he tried to make light of the careless mistake even though similar mistakes had been made in the past by Ralph. 

He simply said, “Ralph, it looks like you made a silly mistake with that order.  You forgot the cookies.” 

Ralph burst out crying and sobbed, “I just can’t do anything right.” 

Then Ralph went on to say, “I wish you had not rushed me.”

Fred was not sure what to do or how to respond so he did not say anything.  Generally, Ralph did a pretty good job and took pride in his work but Fred did not have time at that moment for a counseling session. 

Upon reflection, Fred could not imagine himself reacting like that to a little bit of corrective feedback – Failure Feedback.  There might have been other issues with Ralph that night but how could Fred have avoided the situation and additional stress caused by Ralph’s reaction?  Perhaps he could have taken a different approach but I had to agree with him when he said, “when you are under pressure and a time crunch sometimes you just need to correct a mistake without worrying about drama from your team. I did not have time to sugar-coat it.”

The Study

This comment led me to think of an interview with Lauren Eskreis-Winkler of the University of Chicago that is published in the current print version, May-June 2020 of the Harvard Business Review.  In the interview by Eben Harrell, Ms.  Eskreiss-Winkler defends her research related to learning when subjects were provided feedback on what they got right on a test (success feedback) as opposed to learning when subjects were provided feedback on what they got wrong (failure feedback).  In follow-up tests, even though both sets of subjects were provided with the correct answer, the majority of subjects who were provided with success feedback were able to reach the correct answer the second time around but the subjects who received failure feedback had learned much less.  Eskreis-Winkler and her coauthor, Ayelet Fishbach concluded that perhaps failure is not the best teacher.

The Answer?

I suppose this study would suggest that Fred should have praised Ralph for all of the correct orders that he assembled. He should have proceeded to point out all of the correct items in that particular order before suggesting that the cookies might be missing.  Sure, that approach might have boosted Ralph’s ego but what about efficiency?  Is everyone so sensitive to making a mistake that we need to hide the correction in a success feedback sandwich in order to promote learning and avoid the same mistake in the future?

As a teacher, do I need to champion all of the student’s correct answers on a test even though efficiency would dictate that I point out the two or three questions where the student missed the mark?  Success feedback always feels better but are my student’s egos so fragile that I must spend the time to rehash all of their accomplishments and applaud each data point of learning before moving on to new content? 

On the surface, the study reveals the importance of success feedback to encourage learning but the interview revealed another factor: the Growth Mindset.

An Alternative Conclusion:  Promote a Growth Mindset

The interviewer, Eben Harrell posed the question, “So we all struggle to learn from failure?”

Eskreis-Winkler admitted that not all participants overlooked failure as a way to learn.  The study may reveal the prevalence of a Fixed Mindset in the students who were a part of the study. 

Eskreis-Winkler goes on to speculate, “Perhaps if we had taught everyone in our studies to adopt a growth mindset, we would have seen learning from failure across the board.”

In January, I was engaged by a client to provide his restaurant managers with guidance related to dealing with Generation Z employees.  As part of that advice, and based upon research of about a dozen different articles, I indicated that members of the newest generation are much more accepting of success feedback as opposed to failure feedback. 

Now I am wondering about my own advice.  As a short term solution, and whenever possible, success feedback may be more effective to promote learning but instilling a Growth Mindset seems to be a better long term approach. When efficiency is required and time is of the essence, a Growth Mindset culture will ensure that egos are not bruised and improvements are made quickly with failure feedback that does not stifle learning.

Last week, my article “You Cannot Make A Mistake” discusses the Growth Mindset as depicted in Carol S. Dweck’s influential book, “Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success.”  If you missed my article last week, you can read it here on my website or you can find it on my LinkedIn Profile.

High achievers and progressive companies are beginning to embrace the power of Growth Mindsets and they are also looking to hire candidates who already exhibit a Growth Mindset.  In November, I discussed a current recruiting trend that is catching on in the high tech industry.  Candidates are being asked to provide and discuss a Failure Resume.  You can find my article about Failure Resumes here in my articles section if you are interested in that topic. How could anyone with a Fixed Mindset even think about creating a list of their failures let alone write them down and discuss them with a potential employer?

The Resolution

I suggested to Fred that he should explore what was going on with Ralph that night to see if there are some underlying issues that just rose to the surface at the wrong time.  He agreed to do that and additionally, Fred decided that his crew could use some coaching related to a Growth Mindset.  We both agreed that having a collective Growth Mindset culture in his restaurant would help to foster learning and growth even during highly stressful situations when there is no time to “sugar-coat” feedback.

If you have thoughts about a Growth Mindset or Success versus Failure Feedback, I would love to hear what you have to say.  If you are interested in learning more about Business Coaching or other services that I provide, please contact me at (602)524-5275 or by e-mail at