Keller Center for Research

Bouncing Back Following Failure

Oct. 1, 2009

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by Andrea L. Dixon, PhD

Sales is a profession in which one must not be a stranger to failure. Being a successful agent depends, in part, upon the ability to respond effectively to failure. How agents interpret failure (i.e., the attributions they make for failure) drives their expectations for future success, which in turn influences what they do (e.g., work harder, change strategy). A specific attribution for failure often leads to different responses across agents which suggests other variables beyond the experience of the agent influences the attribution-behavior link. Research in other fields indicates that individual differences influence behaviors after success and failure, which suggests that personality may play a role in agents' responses to success and failure.

This research demonstrates the influence of individual differences on how an agent interprets a sales call and shapes the relationship between attributions for failure and the behaviors that follow. Our findings reveal that optimism and self-efficacy are important influences on how agents respond to unsuccessful sales exchanges.

Attribution Theory and Behavioral Intentions

When individuals fail, they attempt to identify explanations for unexpected events (Heider 1958). To understand such sense-making behavior, researchers turn to attribution theory, which suggests that 1) individuals attempt to determine causes of both their own and others' behavior, 2) causal explanations are assigned in some systematic manner using individual rules or perspectives, and 3) ascribed causes will influence subsequent behavior.

Research supports that agents make attributions when they fail (Downey, Chacko, and McElroy 1979) and that these attributions influence agents' subsequent behavior (Dixon, Spiro, and Forbes 2003; Dixon, Spiro, and Jamil 2001). However, further research suggests that the attributions an agent makes in response to failure does not lead to a specific behavior, but may lead to multiple behaviors (Dixon, Spiro, and Jamil 2001).

Personality research in psychology has repeatedly shown how individual differences, such as one's optimism (e.g., Carver, Scheier, and Weintraub 1989) and self-efficacy (Gist and Mitchell 1992), shape an individual's response to challenging situations and negative outcomes. Optimism is defined as an inclination to anticipate the best possible outcome. Self-efficacy, in turn, is defined in the world of sales as one is capable of doing what is necessary to attain a sale.


Each sales opportunity presents uncertainty. Where there is Bouncing Backuncertainty or when one lacks specific experience, optimism plays an important role in an individual's interpretations of the cause of success and failure (Seligman 1991) and selection of subsequent actions (Scheier and Carver 1985; 1988). Research suggests that individuals who are more optimistic are more likely to interpret the cause of failure as more temporary and within their control than those who are less optimistic (Seligman 1991).

Since optimists generally expect success, those who are more optimistic view failure as a temporary setback that they can correct. Failure is not perceived as "being wrong" but as providing information leading to solutions (Diener and Dweck 1978). After experiencing a failure and ascribing a cause, optimists respond by focusing on the cause, determining a solution, and continuing to work toward future success (Scheier, Weintraub, and Carver 1986). In the face of failure, those who are more optimistic will persist longer than will those who are less optimistic (Scheier and Carver 1988).

Personal Self-Efficacy

An individual's self-concept also drives behavior. An individual difference related to one's self-concept is personal self-efficacy, which reflects one's self-confidence in his or her capabilities to obtain the motivation, resources, and courses of action needed to meet the demands of a situation (Wood and Bandura 1989). Individuals weigh, integrate, and evaluate information about their capabilities and then regulate their choices and efforts accordingly (Bandura et al. 1980). Faced with failure, individuals higher in self-efficacy will attribute the failure to internal or variable causes than those with lower self-efficacy (Gist and Mitchell 1992), because they believe in their ability to perform the task.

Once an agent has failed and found the cause of that failure, individuals higher in self-efficacy choose future behaviors that reflect their belief in their capabilities to perform the task. In this way, the individual difference of self-efficacy shapes an agent's behaviors related to effort, persistence, and effective problem solving (Bandura 1997).

Both optimism and self-efficacy appear to have distinct influence on the attribution of failure and the behaviors that follow. Optimism reflects the general expectancy of favorable outcomes; personal self-efficacy reflects an individual's confidence in the ability to perform.

Increased Effort Following Failure

Generally expecting success to come their way, optimists tend to consider failure as a challenge to be conquered. They counter failure which they have attributed to lack of effort ability by increasing effort and working harder at their tasks in an attempt to improve their ability through whatever means possible. As a result, more optimistic agents who have failed will work and strive to overcome for far longer than will those agents who are less optimistic.

Individuals with high self-efficacy believe they have the capabilities to successfully accomplish a task. Belief in one's ability has been linked by researchers to both level of effort and persistence (Schunk and Gunn 1986). This research suggests that individuals with higher self-efficacy are more likely to exert greater effort in the face of difficulty and persist at a task than will individuals with lower self-efficacy.

Seeking Assistance Following Failure

After experiencing failure and attributing the cause to an individual's own ability, individuals may recognize their own inadequacy to correct the problem and seek assistance to solve the problem and achieve success. In this way, optimists use adversity and failure as an opportunity to learn by seeking the assistance of others when they recognize their own lack of ability. When the failure is attributed to lack of ability, more optimistic agents are more likely to adapt and learn by seeking help from others (Scheier, Weintraub, and Carver 1986; Sujan 1996).

Changing Strategy Following Failure

Research with college students suggests that more optimistic, action-oriented students respond to failure by thinking even more about solutions (Brunstein and Olbrich 1985). Similarly, we found that agents with high optimism develop a repertoire of strategies and approaches over time as they achieve success. Following a failure attributed to utilizing the wrong strategy, more optimistic agents are even more likely to consider alternative approaches and change their strategy in future similar situations than those who are less optimistic.

To the extent that agents believe that they can successfully perform the behavior required, they enact a new strategy following failure due to using the wrong strategy. When a failure is attributed to the wrong strategy, those higher in self-efficacy stay focused on the task at hand and change strategies than do those with lower self-efficacy.


Our research helps us to understand that optimism and self-efficacy play important roles in both shaping an agent's attributions for a failed sale and in their responses that follow. An agent possessing a high level of optimism or self-efficacy is more likely to attribute sales failures to unstable causes. Further, agents high in self-efficacy and optimism are also are more likely to "blame" internal forces such as the strategy chosen or effort put forth for failing to make a sale. The tendency of people to blame external forces for their failures is less likely to occur among optimistic, self-efficacious agents (cf. Weiner 1986). Such agents are more likely to take responsibility for their failures, holding themselves accountable for future corrective action.

Individuals with high optimism or strong-self efficacy tend to be more achievement-oriented, willing to learn from failure, and willing to persevere at a task longer in an effort to successfully reach their goal (Bandura 1982; Diener and Dweck 1978; Gist 1987). Importantly, this willingness to learn has important implications as it indicates that optimism and self-efficacy can be learned. Recent psychology and organizational behavior research related to training and performance suggests that both optimism (Armor and Taylor 1997; Schulman 1999) and self-efficacy (Karl, O'Leary-Kelly, and Martocchio 1993) can be enhanced, increased, and nurtured with the appropriate coaching. Thus, coaching or training efforts with the intention of increasing an agent's level of optimism or self-efficacy may result in higher levels of achievement.

In a competitive marketplace, an agent is particularly vulnerable and in need of personalized coaching and support following a sales failure. Understanding how an agent's individual differences, particularly his/her level of optimism and self-efficacy, affect their actions following failure because their interpretations of their failure provide invaluable information for achieving future success.

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About the Author:

Andrea Dixon, PhD,
Executive Director, Keller Center for Research and the Center for Professional Selling
The Frank M. And Floy Smith Holloway Professorship in Marketing, Baylor University

Coming from an industrial background in research, planning and advertising, Dr. Dixon's research interests embrace behavioral issues related to sales, service and customer satisfaction. Andrea has published in the Journal of Marketing, Harvard Business Review, Organizational Science, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Leadership Quarterly, the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, The Journal of Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, and several other journals. In 2002, Dixon's research published in the Journal of Marketing was selected as the award-winning research in the sales area.

Prior to joining Baylor, Dixon was the Executive Director of the MS-Marketing Program and the Ronald J. Dornoff Teaching Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. She has co-authored the book, Strategic Sales Leadership: BREAKthrough Thinking for BREAKthrough Results, and multiple industry-wide research texts. Dixon serves on two editorial review boards and co-chaired the American Marketing Association's 2007 Winter Educator Conference.

While serving as a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati (U.C.) and Indiana University-Bloomington (I.U.), Dr. Dixon taught an array of graduate and undergraduate courses. One of U.C.'s MBA EXCEL Teaching Award winners, Dixon was selected for a national teaching award by Irwin Publishing, as a distinguished professor by Indiana University MBA students, and for a university-wide award by her academic colleagues at I.U. In 2008, she was named the Academy of Marketing Science's Marketing Teacher Award winner and the Ronald J. Dornoff Teaching Fellow at U.C. Prior to teaching at U.C., Andrea worked with GAMA International as the Senior Director of Product Development and Marketing.

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