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

53 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2014  

Christopher G. Myers

Johns Hopkins University - Carey Business School

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Francesca Gino

Harvard Business School

Date Written: April 18, 2014

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: Learning, Failure, Internal Attribution, Ambiguity, Responsibility

Suggested Citation

Myers, Christopher G. and Staats, Bradley R. and Gino, Francesca, 'My Bad!' How Internal Attribution and Ambiguity of Responsibility Affect Learning from Failure (April 18, 2014). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-104. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2426674 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2426674

Christopher G. Myers

Johns Hopkins University - Carey Business School ( email )

100 International Drive
Baltimore, MD 21202
United States

Bradley R. Staats

University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School ( email )

McColl Building, CB#3490
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
United States

Francesca Gino (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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