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How to Embrace Failure

Experiencing the peace of imperfection.

Key points

  • In an employment context, negative emotions in response to failure may significantly impact learning.
  • Anger in response to failure can be alleviated by resilience and project commitment
  • Employees are more likely to learn from failure when they are part of a supportive team.
  • Healthy social networks can provide positive encouragement that will soften the inevitable blow of failure.

You may have had a coach, mentor, or role model growing up who assured you that -the only way to fail was not to try. No one ever “lost” a game sitting on the sidelines. Yet recognizing the impossible standard of perfection doesn’t mean many people don’t try to reach it anyway. Research reveals healthier ways of embracing imperfection and withstanding failure.

Image by vivisorg on Pixabay
Source: Image by vivisorg on Pixabay

Failure and Resilience

Wenzhou Wang et al. (2022) explored the relationship between experiencing anger and learning from failure.[i] Examining the issue in an employment context within a Chinese population sample, they note that studies have established that negative employee emotions such as anger in response to failure may significantly impact subsequent learning. Wang et al. examined how employee anger impacts learning from failure, examining the moderating roles of resilience and project commitment. They found that anger produces a negative effect on learning from failure, but the effect is alleviated by resilience, as well as project commitment. They acknowledge that their results provide important information and suggestions for how companies can motivate employees to overcome the adverse effects of failure, and instead, experience it as a learning experience.

Team Support: Strength in Numbers

Projects almost always require teamwork, whether for profit or philanthropy. Sure enough, a team can strengthen the final product, both physically and mentally.

Hendrik Wilhelm et al. (2019) investigated how employees learn from failure when they are part of a team.[ii] They recognize that some employees can learn from failure, while others experience defensive reactions that impede learning opportunities. Accordingly, their research was designed to expand experiential learning theories by incorporating consideration of social context, producing a more complete understanding of how employees learn from failure.

Examining how failure may occur within team contexts, Wilhelm et al. found that employees were more likely to learn from failure when working in teams with medium-to-high levels of “psychological safety.” Perhaps this is why most people describe the satisfaction level of their professional environment based on how they feel supported by their superiors and peers.

Finding Victory in Failure

Not everyone fails within an employment context, but most people would agree failure is always experienced in response to some type of attempt. From the classroom to the boardroom, to a family conversation in your living room, we experience failure both personally and professionally. True, ruining a batch of cookies will be internalized very differently than ruining a batch of vaccine doses. But our response options are similar. We can learn from our mistakes, pass the buck by blaming others or draw strength from our team.

Regardless of our efforts, we cannot always prevent failure. But by surrounding ourselves with supportive friends, family, and peers, we can maintain a healthy network of encouragement, empowerment, and inspiration, that will soften the blow.


[i] Wang, Wenzhou, Xiaoxuan Chen, Gengmiao Ning, Yijie Wang, and Shanghao Song. 2022. “The Relationship between Anger and Learning from Failure: The Moderating Effect of Resilience and Project Commitment.” Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, July. doi:10.1007/s12144-022-03330-5.

[ii] Wilhelm, Hendrik, Andreas W. Richter, and Thorsten Semrau. 2019. “Employee Learning from Failure: A Team-as-Resource Perspective.” Organization Science 30 (4): 694–714. doi:10.1287/orsc.2018.1255.

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