The role of emotions in employees' explanations for failure in the workplace

Shlomo Hareli (Graduate School of Business and Department of Human Services, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel, and)
Noga Shomrat (Graduate School of Business, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel)
Nahum Biger (Graduate School of Business, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Publication date: 1 December 2005



The paper aims to study how shame, guilt and fear experienced by failing employees determine their explanation of the failure.


Employees participated in two studies, one assessing actual personal examples of failures and another used imaginary vignettes. To manipulate the extent to which guilt or shame was the dominant emotion experienced by the failing employee, participants were asked to generate counterfactual thoughts typical of each of these feelings. Fear was manipulated by describing a threatening atmosphere in the organization. Measured was the likelihood that the employee took responsibility for what happened and provided a valid explanation. Likelihood of explaining the event by using excuses, justifications, concessions or denials was also measured.


Findings indicate guilt was associated with explanations that help the organization learn from the failure and assist employees in restoring their relationships with the organization and co‐workers. Heightened levels of fear, however, decreased this desirable effect of guilt. Shame had no unique contribution to an employee's choice of explanations.

Research limitations/implications

The use of self‐reports and vignettes limits the ecological validity of the present findings. Nevertheless, it provides preliminary evidence for the importance of the factors under study.

Practical implications

These findings contribute to an understanding of the ways organizations can provide emotional settings conductive to constructive failure inquiries both for organizations and employees.


The role emotions play in explanation of failures is an understudied issue both in social psychology and organizational research. The present study opens an avenue for more studies in this direction.



Hareli, S., Shomrat, N. and Biger, N. (2005), "The role of emotions in employees' explanations for failure in the workplace", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 20 No. 8, pp. 663-680.

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