The more severe the merrier: Severity of error consequences stimulates learning from error

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Errors at work can lead to learning but little is known about error attributes and person attributes that make learning more or less likely. This research tested the role of severity of error consequences (error attribute) and trait negative affectivity (person attribute) for learning from error. In two experimental vignette studies, participants responded to written error scenarios that typically happen to university students (Study 1, N = 216) or to employees at work (Study 2, N = 121). In support of the view that error consequences need to be severe enough to attract attention, severity of error consequences increased both affective learning (perceived utility of the error; Studies 1 and 2) and cognitive learning (correctly recalled error scenarios; Study 2). In both studies, trait negative affectivity was associated with decreased affective learning when error consequences were severe (interaction effect). The results suggest that some errors at work – at least errors with minor consequences – may not receive much attention and are easily forgotten. To fully exploit learning opportunities, organizations should give attention to all errors and take them seriously, irrespective of severity of immediate error consequences. Practitioner points: Whether errors in organizations receive attention seems to depend on severity of error consequences, rather than on errors per se and their informational value. This implies that valuable learning opportunities of errors may be missed. To fully exploit learning opportunities, managers should encourage open communication and learning from error and avoid unproductive blaming. This particularly applies to dispositionally anxious individuals who may feel threatened by errors more easily and who may, in turn, respond defensively.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)712-737
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 01.09.2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported in part by grants from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, grants no. KE 1377/4-1 and FR 638/38-1). We would like to thank Mario Csonka, Verena Stella Jahn, and Thomas Kaluza for data collection.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Psychological Society

    Research areas

  • Business psychology - human error, informal learning, learning from error, negative affectivity