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Are You Your Job?

Find out
what motivatespeople to
overcome failure.

When you mess up at work, are you inspired to re-group, or do your spirits and performance plummet? If your job is important to your identity, your answer will depend on whether you're given the chance to redeem yourself.

German researchers Joachim Brunstein, Ph.D., and Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., asked 96 medical students, all highly committed to their careers, to complete a quiz that supposedly measured social skills. Then the future doctors were asked to tackle a test that required quickly scanning a text for apostrophes.

Some of the students were led to believe that both tests assessed abilities vital to medical success, and that they had done poorly on the first one. Because this bad news threatened their identities as budding doctors, they attacked the second exam with more gusto--and scored higher than any group in the study.

But another set of students, told that they'd botched the first test but that the second one did not reflect their career prospects, did far worse on the follow-up. The reason? While taking the second quiz, they were mulling over their initial failure rather than concentrating on the apostrophes, Brunstein and Gollwitzer report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. So bosses seeking to inspire a staff to improve after setbacks will have more success if they give employees a chance to restore their damaged sense of self, rather than reassigning them to menial tasks.