Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

'My Bad!' How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure

by Christopher G. Myers, Bradley R. Staats and Francesca Gino

Abstract

Learning in organizations is a key determinant of individual and organizational success, and one valuable source of this learning is prior failure. Previous research finds that although individuals can learn from failed experiences, they do not always do so. To explain why this is true, we explore how individuals process failed experiences as a potential source of learning. Drawing on attribution theory, we conceptualize the differential impact that internal (self-focused) and external (factors outside of one's control) attributions after failure may have on individuals' learning and identify a key factor that shapes whether individuals attribute failure internally or externally, namely perceived ambiguity of responsibility. We hypothesize that when perceived ambiguity of responsibility is low rather than high, individuals will be more likely to attribute their failure internally and in turn devote more effort to learning and improving. We test our hypotheses using data collected in field and laboratory settings. This multi-method approach supports our theoretical model and permits us to gain further insight into how learning from failure occurs for individuals in work organizations.

Keywords: Attitudes; Failure; Learning;

Citation:

Myers, Christopher G., Bradley R. Staats, and Francesca Gino. "'My Bad!' How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-104, April 2014.