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Failure At Work: Understanding And Outcomes

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To comprehend the beneficial role of failure, it is important to establish, from a scientific point of view, a clear definition of what is considered to failure in the work context, as this perception can vary, even within one organization. Although some researchers make a distinction between failure and errors and others exclusively use the term failure, errors and failure are used interchangeably throughout this paper for the following reasons. The term ‘failure’ indicates a lack of success and is most commonly employed in studies on organizational and population level, often describing the behaviour of groups or managerial decision making that causes or relates to bankruptcy, downsizing, retrenchment, organizational exit or decline. Nevertheless, in line with an individual, goal-oriented approach, some conceptualizations define error as the failure of planned actions to achieve a desired goal. Derived from this definition, human action fails to meet an implicit or explicit normative standard and occurs when a planned and intentional series of actions fails to achieve a desired outcome. It follows that the distinction between error and failure is not a clear one. Consequential to this conceptual issue, the constructs are correspondingly hard to distinguish at empirical level.

In the present study failure is defined as the overarching, all-encompassing factor of disruption that hinders the completion of an organizational task or achieving a work-related goal. Thus, failure is here perceived as a broader construct, which includes mild to severe errors at work, but also captures any additional facet or form of failing in which the completion of task is hindered. In the present study the range of severity of failure is illustrated and conceptualized as two facets of failure: errors at work and pending work assignments. These conceptualizations thus represent two qualitatively different types of failure which are explained below. All expectations in the present study are equally applicable to both types of failure.

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Two characteristics of errors have repeatedly been pointed out from cognitive and action-oriented perspectives. First, errors are related to a particular goal and occur in goal-oriented action. Second, and more specifically, errors encompass a deviation from a desired goal or state. Merging these two elements, errors are defined as individual inadequate and ineffective actions, decisions or omissions that result in a deficient deviation from a desired goal, standard or result. This conceptualization is commonly used in studies on the reduction of human error at work. The focus of this study is on errors at work that consist of making mistakes, creating stress or engaging in conflict or other goal-disruptive situations at work.

It should be noted that errors are different from deliberate violations; intended deviations from a goal and unavoidable deviations, such as accidents. Similarly, there is a distinction between errors and poor performance. Poor performance is a more general construct, stretched over an elongated period of time, whereas errors are time and task specific as even high performers can commit errors in the workplace.

Pending work assignments

Another less severe form of failure can be illustrated by lack of regulatory closure, which reflects the extent to which an individual has the feeling that their goal is fulfilled or not. Lack of regulatory closure captures failure of planned actions to achieve a desired goal or task. This form of failure does not necessarily involve making a mistake, but can be ascribed to broader, temporal or external factors that hinder goal achievement. In the present research we refer to this form of failure as pending work assignment. In other words: targets, goals, tasks or assignments that have not been completed within an expected or normative timeframe.

Outcomes of failure

For various reasons, a large body of research has been dedicated to errors at work one being the emotional and psychological consequences of experiencing failure which are found in a wide range of work environments and occupations. Research shows that errors at work cause error strain; negative emotions such as fear, anger, guilt or shame that results from having committed an error and error-related negativity (ERN). For instance, match failure has been linked with elevated feelings of depression, humiliation and guilt in athletes. Medical errors that impede patient safety have been reported to result in depression, anxiety and shame in healthcare professionals which in turn leads to the recurrence of failure. Errors at work produce stress, lead to quality and performance problems and an unhealthy organizational climate.


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