Allison Wood Brooks and her colleagues have published a new working paper titled, "Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful People Should Reveal Their Failures." These scholars argue that leaders need to discuss their failures openly. They should avoid simply talking about past success, because focusing only on past achievements can stir up "malicious envy" on the part of team members. Brooks explains, “When people feel malicious envy, they engage in counterproductive work to harm other people. They tend to undermine others and try to slow them down.” However, you might be thinking that discussing failures undermines people's perceptions of the leader's competence reduces their ability to inspire and motivate others to follow them. Brooks and her colleagues find that acknowledging past stumbles does not reduce admiration for the leader. You can read more about their research in this column from HBS Working Knowledge.
Interestingly, other research suggests that there may be another important reason for leaders to open up about their failures. Research in the field of education by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues examined how students responded to stories told about the achievements of great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. If students heard only heroic stories of their achievements, they performed worse in science class than if they heard stories of the challenges and obstacles that these scientists faced, and the failures on their path to great achievement. Students could identify more with those authentic stories of difficulty and challenge. Moreover, they were more confident in their own ability to excel in science if they heard these stories of challenge and triumph.
The lesson is clear for leaders. You not only reduce malicious envy if you open up about past failures, but you may bolster the confidence of your team members. The belief in their ability to take on new challenges may rise, and as a result, performance of your team may increase as well. Most importantly, others' perception of your competence may not suffer if you are honest with them about past achievements and struggles.