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“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s a saying we’ve all heard, and one we can apply to all areas of our life. Whether it be moving on from personal loss, or learning from our professional mistakes, an optimistic outlook is essential to improve. 

However, psychological studies have revealed that not everyone shares this optimism, and it comes at the detriment of their learning and intelligence. 

Below we explore why learning from failure is crucial to business leaders, and why success can be a poor teacher.

 

Some Brains Reject Failure

A 2011 study published in the Association for Psychological Science found that there are two typical responses our brains make to mistakes:

Response A: When we identify our mistake, the brain enters a hyper-alert state that approaches the situation as if it is a problem that needs immediate solving. Our attention increases during the following decisions, in an attempt to avoid replicating the same mistake another time. In this state, we are more likely to improve our subsequent performance on tasks. 

Response B: When we identify our mistake, the brain shuts down in order to protect us from negative emotions. It regards the mistake as a threat, not a problem to be solved, and prevents us from doubting our abilities. People that display this response were found to pay far more attention to positive feedback. 

The study revealed that these neural responses stem from two divergent beliefs: 

1. People who exhibited Response A believed that “intelligence develops through effort”, and that “mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn”.

2. People who exhibited Response B believed that “intelligence is a stable characteristic”, and that “mistakes indicate a lack of ability”. 

In other words, our brains are wired to either; A) take the blame and improve, or B) shift the blame and deny personal responsibility. Ask yourself, who would you rather working for your business?

 

CFOs Should Be Chief Failure Officers

The role of the CFO is expanding, as finance leaders are now expected to leverage digital technologies and data analytics to drive consistent and measurable business growth. As our very own CFO, Pip Spibey says, “The days of the CFO sitting in the corner office counting beans are long gone.” These new responsibilities must be learnt, and failure is an inevitable and incredibly valuable part of that process. 

CFOs are also increasingly expected to drive innovation, and innovation depends on failure. An article by Paul Schoemaker in Inc. magazine, “Why Failure is the Foundation of Innovation”, explains why some of the biggest business wins are born from failure.

“Honda’s founder, Sochiro Honda, said it well: ‘Success if 99% failure.’ Thanks to mistakes, we now have such medical innovations as penicillin, smallpox vaccine and pacemakers,” it reads.

A CFO, or any other employee who is expected to spearhead business innovation, should walk happily arm-in-arm with failure if they are to achieve. Demonstrating a Response B reaction to mistakes is diabolically counterproductive.

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