Want your coworkers to like you? Never microwave fish for lunch, avoid “just checking in,” and don’t forget to talk about your failures.
That last tip comes straight from the Harvard Business School, where a team of researchers recently found that managers who mention their mistakes face less resentment from colleagues. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a simple way for people to reduce envy, as doctoral student Nicole Abi-Esber tells Money.
“We all want people to think we’re competent, so we overshare the things that make us seem competent,” she says. “Couple it with a struggle and that will make people connect with you more.”
Abi-Esber worked on the paper “Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful Individuals Should Reveal Their Failures.” She joined a team of researchers who set out to explore whether talking about their pitfalls, rather than hiding them, made people less jealous.
Here’s what they found — and how you can do it, too.
Mistakes Are Good for Something
To start, the Harvard experts sought to verify that people are indeed less likely to disclose their failures than successes. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which pays regular people to take surveys, they first asked 150 participants about their accomplishments and who they’d told about them. The results confirmed their hypothesis.
“People are so reluctant to reveal failures,” Abi-Esber says. “If you give people the opportunity, they will choose the successes.”
After establishing that baseline, the researchers looked at whether revealing failures along with successes actually made onlookers less jealous. Again using MTurk, they had about 300 subjects enter demographic information and read short biographies of fictional peers.
In some, only successes — like awards or high salaries — were revealed. In others, both successes and failures were included. People who read the successes and failures biographies had lower feelings of envy than the ones who only saw successes.
The team replicated that finding in another MTurk study with over 660 people and then moved onto a field study at a startup pitch competition.
Researchers asked about 80 entrepreneurs to listen to an audio recording of someone else’s pitch. Some versions of the script only included successes, like “I have already landed some huge clients — companies like Google and GE.” Others included victories and failures, with the person saying, “I wasn’t always so successful. I had a lot of trouble getting to where I am now… many potential clients turned me down.”
The researchers again found that people who listened to the successes and failures version felt less malicious envy. They also discovered that revealing mistakes increased perceptions of confidence and authentic pride.
An added bonus, some people even felt inspired to better themselves.
Elvis, Oprah and You
There are tons of famous failure stories: Elvis Presley was once told he’d never make it as a singer, Oprah Winfrey got fired from her first job in TV, and author J.K. Rowling had her Harry Potter manuscript rejected by 12 publishers.
But you don’t have to be a celebrity to make your mistakes work for you.
Bosses, managers and other people in leadership positions can put this Harvard strategy to use in their everyday lives. Just look at Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer’s now-famous “CV of failures,” an exhaustive list of all the degree programs he wasn’t accepted into, the fellowships he did not get, and the awards he did not win.
Abi-Esber, too, has been adopting the practice in her everyday life. When she logged onto LinkedIn earlier this month to post about her first academic paper getting published, she didn’t just brag. She also mentioned all the challenges with evidence, revision and editing she and her co-authors faced in reaching that point.
It’s as simple as that.
So the next time you’re celebrating an achievement at work, make sure to acknowledge the failures along the way. Even if you’re not the top boss, the fact that you overcame those difficulties will likely make you seem less arrogant to your colleagues.
“In those moments when you’re sharing things that went right, make sure to also share things that went wrong,” Abi-Esber says.
And don’t be too worried that oversharing is going to discredit you. As long as you pair your talk of failure with talk of success, your reputation will be fine.