Why Too Much Experience Can Backfire

In its relatively short history Pixar has achieved remarkable success, garnering 15 Academy Awards and an average international gross of more than $600 million per film. Pixar movies appeal to moviegoers of all ages, with their unconventional plots and emotional depth. Talking cars (Cars), a rat who wants to be a chef (Ratatouille), an elderly man whose house floats to South America on the strength of thousands of balloons (Up), are among the unusual stars of Pixar films.

But when I spoke with Pixar president and cofounder Ed Catmull, he told me that he prefers to tell new recruits about Pixar’s failures. As a studio, Pixar enjoys a wealth of experience, and of course this is tremendously valuable. But Catmull has realized that with experience also comes an attitude that we have all the right answers. He told me that he wants his new recruits to not be intimidated, to present their ideas, and so it’s crucial that they see Pixar, like other companies, is far from perfect.

This is an insight that we all can benefit from. According to research I have done, there are situations where being more experienced—being more expert, or more knowledgeable—leads to lower performance. Experience can be a negative.

When we have been successful, it’s easy to feel that we have little left to learn. In one study, my colleagues and I asked a group of working adults from a wide range of industries and jobs in the United States to choose between two hypothetical investment options. Next, we gave them a general-knowledge test, which was designed to prime some of them to feel like experts. This group was given easy questions to answer, such as “In what North American country is the city of Toronto located?” Others were given much more challenging questions, such as, “Who is credited with inventing the wristwatch in 1904?” Next, all the participants were told that the fund they’d decided to invest in hadn’t done well. We asked them if they wanted switch to a different fund or stick with the same one. The participants who felt like experts—even though their expertise was based on a general trivia quiz that had nothing to do with investing—were less willing to switch gears. They tuned out negative information that clearly suggested they had made a poor decision.

The feeling of knowing leads us to rationalize our past choices—and the urge to do so grows stronger the more experience we acquire. We saw this at work in a real-world situation with high stakes. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about the dangers of using a common technology, drug-eluting stents, in “off-label” cases. The warning was triggered by compelling research evidence of serious complications from the stents for patients, even death. My colleagues and I were surprised to find that the more experience cardiologists had on the job, the more likely they were to continue to use drug-eluting stents, despite the worrisome dangers the FDA had highlighted. The decisions of the experienced cardiologists also influenced their cardiologist coworkers, independent of how long they’d been in the field. The doctors in our sample, in fact, followed the lead of more experienced cardiologists, not realizing that their experience was masking what was best for their patients.

By contrast, when we’re reminded that the more we know, the more there is to learn, experience opens our minds to the fact that there are multiple ways to approach the same decision or task—even those that start to feel monotonous over time. At a typical fast-food restaurant, workers receive a couple of hours of training before starting on the line. Not so at Pal’s Sudden Service, a chain whose stores that have statues of fries and burgers on their roofs. At Pal’s, everyone is trained to become an expert at every station, so that there’s no uncertainty about how the job is done—and no errors. In fact, new employees receive an average of 135 hours of training, which can span six months. Why? Pal’s leaders value not just experience, but continuous learning. When workers become experts in each step of the process of preparing and serving food, they have more room in their minds to think about how they could improve existing ways of doing. In fact, as they are explicitly told from their managers, Pal’s workers are expected to suggest ideas for improvements, from new procedures to new menu items. The approach has paid off: Despite operating in a highly competitive industry dominated by global giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, Pal’s performs remarkably well financially. On most measures—from revenue per square foot and gross margins, to return on sales and customer satisfaction—Pal’s beats the competition, by far.

Through their welcoming and training, Pixar and Pal’s encourage people to stay humble. Tenelle Porter, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, coined the term intellectual humility to describe the ability to acknowledge that what we know is sharply limited. As Porter has found in her research, it’s an important realization: Higher levels of intellectual humility are associated with a greater willingness to consider views that don’t align with our own. People who have higher intellectual humility also perform better in school and at work. When added experience is accompanied by awareness that we have more to learn, we are more apt to see that the world keeps on changing—and that we’ll have to change along with it to thrive.

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