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Why managers should reveal their failures

If you want to get your messages through to employees, be ready to confess your own management shortcomings, counsels Alison Wood Brooks.

Published: Dec 20, 2018 11:27:39 AM IST
Updated: Dec 20, 2018 01:29:36 PM IST

Why managers should reveal their failuresIf you’re highly successful, your achievements are obvious. It’s more novel and inspiring for others to learn about your mistakes
Image: Shutterstock

If you’re a business leader who oozes achievement, sprints up the corporate ladder, and earns big bucks, your co-workers probably resent you to some extent. New research says high-achievers can win over their colleagues with a simple approach: by sharing the failures they encountered on the path to success.

“If you’re highly successful, your achievements are obvious. It’s more novel and inspiring for others to learn about your mistakes,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Alison Wood Brooks.

“What’s exciting about this research is that we’re trying to chip away at the resentment that comes with envy and move people toward admiration instead,” she says. “One way to do that is to acknowledge your struggles or shortcomings.”

Brooks co-wrote the February 2018 working paper, Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful People Should Reveal Their Failures , with HBS doctoral students Karen Huang and Nicole Abi-Esber and professors Ryan W. Buell, Brian Hall, and Laura Huang.

Confessing our setbacks is counterintuitive; we tend to talk up achievements and hide failures. But successful leaders who only crow about achievements can come across as egotistical showoffs, stirring up “malicious envy” in their peers.

Malicious envy is a destructive emotion that makes people feel inferior by comparison, even to the point of wishing they could tear down the successful person. As prior research has shown, this type of envy can be toxic in the workplace, stifling worker productivity, leading employees to behave less cooperatively, interfering with group cohesion, and making people feel more justified in behaving unethically.

“When people feel malicious envy, they engage in counterproductive work to harm other people,” Brooks says. “They tend to undermine others and try to slow them down.”

Revealing failures won’t tarnish your image
The HBS team set out to test for levels of malicious envy in different settings and to figure out strategies for tamping it down. In one online study, participants were asked to read a biography by a fictitious peer who had achieved professional success, for example by landing a prestigious, lucrative job. People who read only about the person’s achievements felt significantly more malicious envy than others who read a few extra lines describing the person’s professional failures.

The results of two similar online studies also yielded an important insight for successful people who share their failures: Colleagues have no less admiration for a leader’s accomplishments if they know about these failures, nor does it affect their perception of the person’s status.

“Even after revealing their struggles or failures, high achievers still look good,” Brooks says.

She cautioned that this effect works only for people who have reached at least moderate success. “If you’re a low-status intern, for example, you don’t need to talk as freely about your failures—not because it’s harmful—but because people don’t tend to feel envious of you in the first place.”

In another experiment, the researchers studied a different environment: a competition in which entrepreneurs vying for startup funding pitch their projects to potential investors. (The idea was to determine the effects of envy in a field setting, not whether those feelings affected the chances of winning funding.)

Some entrepreneurs listened to what they thought was an audio recording of a fellow competitor’s pitch where the person gushed only about her successes: “I have already landed some huge clients—companies like Google and GE. I’ve had amazing success, and in the past year I have single-handedly increased our market share by 200 percent.”

Meanwhile, others listened to a pitch where the entrepreneur also fessed up to facing roadblocks by adding, “I wasn’t always so successful. I had a lot of trouble getting to where I am now … When I started my company … I also failed to demonstrate why potential clients should believe in me and our mission. Many potential clients turned me down.”

The study results suggest that listeners jump to different conclusions about a leader depending on whether the person shares slipups or not. Listeners who heard the entrepreneur talk only about her achievements automatically attributed the person’s success to talent alone, and that seemed to make them feel badly about themselves by comparison. They also saw this speaker as arrogant, filled with “hubristic pride,” which turned them off.

On the other hand, participants who heard the entrepreneur disclose previous failures believed the person had more “authentic pride” and came across as confident rather than arrogant. They also got the impression that this entrepreneur put a lot of effort into overcoming obstacles, and that made them feel less malicious envy and more “benign envy.” Benign envy brought out warmer, fuzzier feelings, with listeners not only believing the entrepreneur was deserving of success, but also feeling motivated to improve their own performance.

How to share your faults
The research puts more credence behind interpersonal emotion regulation—when one person deliberately shapes another person’s emotional reactions during a social interaction.

We can have a lot of control over how other people feel and react to us, says Brooks. “Some people might be uncomfortable about exerting that control strategically because it might seem manipulative. But the counterargument to that is that we do it all the time.”

For example, when we choose to be polite or rude, or to give someone else compliments or not, it’s all interpersonal regulation. “If we’re doing these things anyway, why not do it in ways that are wise, productive, and kind?”

Managers can be particularly easy targets of envy, especially when they move quickly through fast-track promotion programs and their colleagues don’t. So, in discussing a promotion or a work-related reward, a manager might consider tossing in a setback encountered earlier in the person’s career to appear more confident and credible, rather than self-centered.

Other workers can relate to facing obstacles, so hearing about the successful manager’s missteps can not only decrease internal competition among colleagues, but motivate other employees to strive for success themselves. Also, in group meetings, managers could consider “humanizing” members of the team by encouraging people to share their mistakes as a team-building exercise to improve communication and collaboration.

“You can motivate your team to work harder by doing this,” Brooks says. “I know I have felt that way seeing other women who have succeeded. I want to know their tricks, how they navigated the minefields, and what mistakes they made along the way—that will help me avoid those same mistakes.”

The humble job applicant
This strategy works for job-seekers, too. If you’re asked to describe your greatest weakness in an interview, don’t use the obvious “I work too hard” response. Instead, sincerely relate a mess up and what you learned. “It’s a great opportunity to show your honesty and vulnerability,” Brooks says.

The master of the public failure strategy might be Princeton University psychology professor Johannes Haushofer, who posted a CV of failures on his professional website in 2016. His laundry list of defeats included degree programs he didn’t get into, research funding he didn’t earn, and papers that were rejected by academic journals.

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible,” Haushofer wrote on his CV. “I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”

The CV earned plenty of press attention and applause from fellow professionals, which doesn’t surprise Brooks.

“People find you more humble and likable when you not only reveal your successes and accomplishments, but your struggles and shortcomings, too,” she says. “If we want to see positive workplace outcomes, we shouldn’t underestimate how important it is to be seen as humble, grounded, and well-liked.”

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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