Talking About Your Failures Will Make Coworkers Like You More, According to Harvard Research

How do feel when you look at someone else’s perfectly curated Instagram feed? Does it make you seethe with jealousy?

Those feelings are not limited to social media. They can be just as pronounced in the workplace. When you’re in a meeting, you probably don’t enjoy listening to a colleague’s recounting their tales of unfettered professional success.

And yet, if you want to take on more responsibility, you have to convince your bosses that you can get the job done. Is there a way to do it without making your coworkers want to bring you down a peg?

Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, recently published a working paper that studied 1,546 people and formalized two kinds of envy: malicious and benign. Malicious envy projects an image of perfection that makes others want to tear you down. Benign envy provides new insights into success and failure and makes others want to pull themselves up.

Here are four ways to avoid malicious envy and begin cultivating benign envy.

1. Don’t brag in public.

There are times in the workplace when you have to list your accomplishments. That time comes before your employer decides whether to you give you more money and responsibility or urge you to seek employment elsewhere. If you list your accomplishments in public conversations in front of coworkers, you are sure to elicit malicious envy.

Keep such conversations between you and your manager. And when you have those private conversations, be open to questions about challenges you encountered and how you overcame them — managers can hurt you if you make them feel malicious envy.

2. Highlight your struggles. 

The Harvard working paper begins with an excellent anecdote: the story of a Johannes Haushofer, a Princeton professor who wanted to help a colleague who had not achieved a career goal. Haushofer posted a “CV of failures” on his professional website, which ended up receiving more attention that his entire body of work.

There are two takeaways from this story: for every success, there are far more failed attempts; and by admitting your failures, you bring yourself closer to other people, making you a better colleague.

In a few weeks I will start teaching again at Babson College. At the beginning of my first class, I introduce myself to students — starting off with an anecdote about how I failed in my career aspirations to be a poet, a concert pianist, an architect, and a CEO. I do this so they’ll know there’s nothing wrong with struggling to find the right career and they should not be afraid to ask me for advice if they feel the need.

3. Emphasize what you learned from failure and success.

Benign envy comes from talking openly about your failures and successes. Others appreciate learning about why you failed, and it makes them more willing to listen to a success story.

Max Levchin, one of the founders of what became PayPal, loved to write operating systems. He built one for the Palm Pilot, but that company cratered. Then he built an operating system for a digital wallet, which mostly failed — except for the part that let people pay electronically for eBay-bought goods. After six months of customer demands to develop that, Levchin gave in, and the rest is history.

In Levchin’s case, the takeaway is to do work that you love to do and do well — but to turn that into a successful business, you must also give customers what they want. If you’ve failed, tell others what you learned from it. And if you’ve succeeded, let them know why.

4. Be honest about the role of luck.

Luck plays a huge role in success, and most people are very reluctant to admit it. If it weren’t for luck, you would expect John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made $4 billion betting against subprime mortgages in 2007, to keep making billions every year. In fact, by January 2018, one of his funds had lost 70 percent of its value in the previous four years and investors were asking for their money back, according to Bloomberg.

I like to point out that the best investment I ever made was based on pure luck. I put money into a startup that was acquired by a public company. That company was in turn acquired by another public company for stock — much of which I held onto. In the last several years the shares are up ninefold. I could not have planned that lucky outcome.

You’re in danger of making bad decisions if you think that your prior success makes you smarter than everyone else. To boost your odds of future success, you need to be humble enough to admit you don’t know everything and get the answers.