A team of psychologists led by Dr. Jean-Charles Lebeau out of Florida State University recently conducted a study looking at the influence of failure on performance. The researchers found that experiencing setbacks negatively influences your emotions and self-efficacy but has no effect on actual performance outcomes. Overcoming obstacles, it turns out, is an important part of the process.
The findings challenge the dominant view that failure is bad because it hurts a person’s sense of self-efficacy, which in turn leads to more failure. According to the research, while failure does indeed hurt self-efficacy, the psychological sequence stops there. A failure at Time 1 does not necessarily mean more failure at Time 2.
In fact, failure in such cases can actually help drive success. The new research suggests that the answer lies in how you cope with your emotional response to obstacles.
Turning failure into fuel for overcoming obstacles
Failing sucks. You’ve definitely experienced the heartbreak of not reaching a goal and the emotional slump that accompanies it. The bad news is that the lousy feeling you get after you fail is almost unavoidable. But the good news is that, although you’re likely to feel less capable of achieving a goal after you fail, you won’t necessarily perform worse the next time around. In fact, it could be failure itself that propels you forward towards achieving your goal, regardless of how bad you feel.
The notion that failure drives success is formally known as control theory. Proponents of control theory view failure and performance as a process akin to that of a thermostat: with the rising heat of failure, your brain’s internal governor kicks in to cool your performance down the road.
Control theory suggests that it is important to experience negative emotions when you fail in order to succeed afterward. But there’s a kicker – it’s not any and all types of emotions that work. It’s essential that you find the sweet spot between debilitating negative emotions and the kind that fuel your control mechanism.
The following steps will help you find that sweet spot in overcoming obstacles.
Step 1: Recognize and admit failure
The first step is admitting that you messed up. This can be hard. In fact, we are psychologically wired to do the exact opposite. Overcoming obstacles requires you to face the looming presence of dissonance you experience when your efforts are challenged. However, according to control theory, in order for our internal thermostat to kick in and take action against failure, it first requires the initiation of negative (emotional) feedback.
Here are two questions to ask yourself when coming clean about your failure:
- What caused the failure?: In order to transform your failure into fuel for your personal pursuits, it’s essential that the cause of the failure is in your control. When you ask yourself what caused your failure, you are giving yourself a choice. You can either take full responsibility, or outsource the blame to a situational factor (an error in self/other judgment which psychologists call the fundamental attribution error).
- Could it have been avoided?: This is where the control theory thermostat starts to work. When admitting your failure, it’s important that you are certain that it could have been avoided if you had acted in accordance with your goals. By doing so, you are boosting your internal drive to fix the issue moving forward. You’re preparing for action.
Step 2: Turn off the thinking
Once the failure is admitted, the next step in overcoming obstacles is to plan and set intentions. You hear a lot about looking on the bright side of failure. And although learning from it is essential to propelling forward, your immediate emotional response doesn’t have to be positive. In fact, research tells us it shouldn’t.
Studies suggest that engaging in emotional rationalization might actually prevent your improvement in subsequent tasks. Furthermore, attempting to transform your negative feelings into positive ones actually increases the likelihood of those negative feelings resurfacing in a maladaptive way in the long-run.
You want to protect yourself against this. Here are two common reappraisal/suppression strategies to avoid when facing failure. Ask yourself, honestly, whether you think you’re engaging in any of the following:
- Shoulda, coulda, woulda style thinking: When you make an excuse for why you should have, could have, or would have done X if Y hadn’t occurred, you are essentially stripping yourself of the power to change your own circumstance. According to control theory, the only negative feedback that works in your internal system is your own action, which means it’s essential to avoid reminiscing on how external factors sabotaged your success.
- Self-handicapping: This is when you blame your failure on the fact that you didn’t expect to succeed to begin with. By doing so, you are basically telling yourself that you just aren’t cut out for the job. This way of thinking is useless since it doesn’t give your internal mechanisms any feedback to work with. Your thermostat is broken, so to speak.
Step 3: Turn on the feeling
So if you’re not engaging in these post-hoc rationalizations, what are you doing? You want to get out of your head and into your feels. We’re often told to override our emotional responses to failure with cool-headed rationality. But what research shows us is it’s important you exhibit self-compassion by allowing yourself to experience the hurt that comes with failure.
Here are two ways you can navigate your negative emotions when dealing with failure:
- Pinpoint your exact emotional response: When navigating your emotional response to failure, it’s important to specifically identify the feelings and emotions that are evoked by your experience. Research in clinical science tells us that the ability to label your negative emotions makes it easier to understand what they’re doing for you.
- Identify what the feeling is urging you to do: Emotions often push us towards action (or inaction). When you are faced with a negative affective state after experiencing failure, take the time to assess what the emotion is urging you to do. This leads to the most important final step in the process: taking action.
Step 4: Assess your readiness for action
You’ve admitted to your failure, fought off the urge to sugarcoat the situation, and have taken the time to assess your emotional response. Now it’s time to buckle down and act.
According to Dr. Nico Frijda, emotions (particularly negative ones) are tools to prepare you for action. But certain emotions are more effective for initiating action. You want to find yourself experiencing the types of “negative” emotions that are going to nudge you in the direction of action (rather than inaction).
The circumplex model of emotions describes emotional states as existing in an intersecting circumplex of two dimensions. One dimension describes the valence of the emotion (i.e. negative or positive) while the other dimension describes the state of arousal (i.e. high or low). For example, anger would fall on the top left of the circumplex making it a high-arousal negative emotional state.
Here’s the catch: overt action is more likely to occur when your emotional state sits on the top half of the circle. So before you get back to the drawing board, it’s essential that you assess your emotional readiness for action and see where in the circle you sit.
- Identify where you sit on the circumplex: After facing failure, it’s likely that you find yourself towards the left of the diagram. (the horizontal dimension). However, whether you fall more towards the top or bottom half (the vertical dimension) can differ from case to case. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to assess your state of arousal:
- Does my heart rate increase when I think about my failure?
- Do I feel envious of those who have reached my goal?
- Do I become defensive at the topic?
If the answer to these questions is an easy “yes”, then you are likely sitting on the top half of the circumplex. If not, it’s time to trade in your emotions for a new flavor of negative affect.
- Swap out your low arousal for high arousal negative affect: If you don’t find yourself angry, envious, or defensive about your failure, you are likely sitting a little lower on the circumplex. This is not an uncommon response to failure. But it can be an unproductive one. In order to take action, it’s best to reappraise your low arousal negative emotions for some higher arousal negative emotions.
- Make a plan: Now that you’re settled into the upper half of the circle, it’s time to use your high arousal state to fuel your action. According to Frijda, our impulsive processing system is influenced by reflection. What this means is that your emotions are already driving you towards your goal. All that you have left to do is to make a concrete plan to execute. Sit down with pen and paper and get to it. But be careful not to dwell in this negative emotional state for too long.
The latest research on how failure fuels future success
The researchers gathered forty-two participants to take part in a golfing performance task. Participants were split into two groups and asked to complete 24 putts. They weren’t able to see where the ball ended up. In one condition, participants were given positive feedback on their golfing performance every six putts. In the other condition, they were given negative feedback.
In order to see what sort of effect perceived failure had on the participants self-efficacy, the researchers administered a self-report every six putts. Self-efficacy was measured by asking each participant: “To what degree do you believe you can achieve your goal?”
The researchers were also interested in the effect failure had on the participants’ emotions and executive function. A feeling scale was administered in order to measure emotion while executive function was measured using two separate computer tasks. In one task, participantsin were asked to identify the color name printed in the same ink color (e.g., RED printed in red ink) or different ink color (e.g., BLUE printed in red ink). The other task involved adding an integer value to a number under a time constraint.
The results of the study revealed that failure had a negative effect on people’s emotional state and self-efficacy. However, they also found that participants’ performance on subsequent physical and cognitive tasks were not impaired by failure. In fact, participants who faced failure actually responded faster to one of the cognitive tasks without compromising their score. In other words, they were both fast and accurate. This lends support to the optimistic view that failure is a necessary condition for future success.
Recap on EQ-based guide to overcoming obstacles
The new research provides some answers to the question of what is the best way to respond to failure. The findings suggest that, while failing feels pretty lousy, it can help you achieve later success.
What this tells us is that it really comes down to how you respond to your emotions after experiencing failure. By coming clean about your failure, opting to feel rather than suppress emotions, and opting for more high arousal responses to failure, you can learn to self-regulate your emotional response and turn your failure into fuel.