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Buffering Employees from the Aftermath of Failure

Buffering Employees from the Aftermath of Failure

The Effect of Failure on Performance over Time: The Case of Cardiac Surgery Operations.

From consultants bidding for a tender to lawyers representing clients before a court, experiencing an unsuccessful outcome or a failure is inevitable. After all, as Winston Churchill once famously noted that: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Past research has indeed highlighted failure as highly important in future successes for individuals. In our paper The Effect of Failure on Performance over Time: The Case of Cardiac Surgery Operations, we show that past failures can eventually lead to future successes– but at a cost.


Emmanouil Avgerinos is an Associate Professor of Decision Sciences in the Operations and Technology area at IE Business School.


Failures in Cardiac Surgeons

Using data from cardiac surgery operations we get three interesting findings. First, we find that when their patient dies (which we define as failure in this setting), surgeons tend to increase their quality output in the long-run. Specifically, they try to understand the reasons for their failure and refine their existing approach in order to avoid similar adverse events in the future. Nonetheless, such an improvement takes time. This, combined with the fact that they might need some time to overcome psychologically the death of their patient, can result in a decreased performance in operations taking place right after the failure.

The good news is that this negative effect can be attenuated by placing surgeons in teams with individuals they have worked with in the past. This makes them feel psychologically safer. Collaborating with familiar colleagues can help surgeons overcome the negative effect they experience in the aftermath of a patient’s death.

In fact, our simulation analysis indicates that following such an approach, managers can reduce the average length of stay by almost three days for every patient in the hospital. This indicates that healthcare practitioners can significantly increase an important quality metric for hospitals without any additional resources, simply using better team allocation strategies.


So how can managers use this?

Failure is a common outcome in today’s high-pressure and competitive work environments.

Understanding the mechanisms that help people learn from failure is an important step toward achieving better organizational performance.

Successful managers should protect their employees from psychological and operational ramifications in the aftermath of failures. Working with familiar colleagues can provide the necessary relief since it offers a safe environment for employees leading to a smoother post-failure transition period. Interacting with familiar individuals can mitigate the short-term negative effect of experiencing a failure while harnessing its beneficial long-term one.