Minimize Malicious Envy From Co-Workers

A smart strategy for the workplace from Harvard Business School research.

Posted Feb 23, 2020

 Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay
Source: Image by Adina Voicu from Pixabay

Say you’re the new intern and you’ve just made 30,000 color copies of a flyer you typed up...with the company’s name spelled wrong.

Gulp.

The last thing you want is to call widespread attention to your flub, all “Hello, my name is: Careless P. Idiot."

Sure, apologize to your supervisor and explain how you’ll be more careful in the future, but otherwise, be quiet, and do your best to lay low for the rest of the week.

However, if you’re successful—if you’re one of the rising stars of the company—failure is your friend. In fact, when you’re highly accomplished, your flubs and shortcomings could use their own publicist.

Recent research by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks and her colleagues suggests that successful people should reveal their workplace failures as well as their successes to decrease “malicious envy” in their co-workers.

Malicious envy, they explain, is “a destructive interpersonal emotion” that motivates others to harm the person they envy—sabotaging them, “pulling them down.”

As for why it seems to help to reveal your failures, the researchers observe that when someone “only talks about her successes, others may attribute her success to internal and uncontrollable factors”—mysterious and magical greatness instead of hard work. They may, in turn, view her pride in her successes as “hubristic”—arrogant—and feel malicious envy toward her.

“On the other hand,” they add, “disclosing failures that occurred along the way to success highlights how much effort the individual exerted to overcome those obstacles”—information that often isn’t available to our colleague and other competitors.

Successful people’s openness about their failures also plays out as a form of generosity. The researchers explain that by making the steps it took to succeed more transparent, the successful person “offers useful information that helps observers learn about the process” that could help them achieve similar successes.

They give a great example of this—Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer’s “CV of failures”: a list of rejections for positions and awards he’d applied for, posted on his professional website.

By going public with this, Haushofer tells colleagues (and especially junior academics) who read it something important about succeeding in academia—that failure and rejection are a huge part of the process. And this, in turn, might energize them to keep submitting themselves and their work, instead of feeling like they don’t have what it takes because they keep getting rejected.

So, if you’re successful, by shining a little sunlight on your screwups, you might just protect yourself against workplace sabotage and help your colleagues in the process.

In short: As you climb the ladder of success, be sure to let ‘em know all the ways you’ve been a blundering, Jell-O-headed mess.

References

Brooks, Alison Wood, Karen Huang, Nicole Abi-Esber, Ryan W. Buell, Laura Huang, and Brian Hall. "Mitigating malicious envy: Why successful individuals should reveal their failures." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 148, no. 4 (2019): 667.