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Performance improvement: when do employees learn from others’ success stories?

Ryan W. Quinn (College of Business, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA)
Denise M. Cumberland (Educational Leadership, Evaluation, and Organizational Development, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA)
Sharon A. Kerrick (College of Business, Bellarmine University, Louisville, Kentucky, USA)

Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance

ISSN: 2051-6614

Article publication date: 13 February 2019

Issue publication date: 21 February 2019




Employees often improve at work by learning from others who have been successful. They learn by hearing their stories. However, the number of stories, task type and context all affect learning. The purpose of this paper is to examine how the number of stories they hear, the type of task they are learning to perform and their performance in the task to date all affect performance improvement.


The authors examine how task complexity and recent performance relative to others influence the relationship between the number of success stories a person reads and their subsequent performance. The authors used a sample of order processing employees from a label manufacturing company to test our hypotheses.


The authors find that in complex tasks, subsequent performance is highest when people read a small number of stories, and lowest when people read no stories or too many stories. In simple tasks, the authors find that when people have average recent performance, more stories leads to lower performance, but when recent performance is high or low, more stories increases subsequent performance.

Research limitations/implications

The authors move beyond research that shows that people do not learn as much from success as they could and that success primarily promotes reinforcement to examine contingencies that enhance or detract from learning from success stories. This adds nuance to existing theory.

Practical implications

This study suggests access to others’ success stories is an alternative that can provide employees with ideas for how to improve their own performance. But care and consideration must be taken to limit the number of success stories based on the complexity of the task.


There is little research on either the vicarious learning of simple tasks in organizations or on how employees learn from others’ success stories. This matters because vicarious learning can enable employees to avoid missteps and create opportunities that would likely not happen if they only learn from their own experiences.



Quinn, R.W., Cumberland, D.M. and Kerrick, S.A. (2019), "Performance improvement: when do employees learn from others’ success stories?", Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 56-76.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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