Go Ahead, Reveal Your Failures to Colleagues

Talking about office disasters is key to better productivity and healthy competition

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We all have our share of office-related horror stories. From the incorrect market data in the presentation slide, to the wrong email recipient, each one of us has, at some point, flopped. Yet we rarely talk about our goof-ups to colleagues. Instead, we trumpet our successes, leading to a culture of unhealthy competition, even widespread jealousy.

This jealousy is actually “malicious envy”, a kind of emotion that people feel when they compare themselves to successful peers, say researchers at the Harvard Business School in the US in their new working paper, “Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful Individuals Should Reveal Their Failures”. “When individuals display their successes, the people around them often feel malicious envy, a destructive interpersonal emotion aimed at harming the envied individual,” states the paper. Such behaviour is especially harmful for those in the higher ranks, say the study researchers.

The Good Envy

“Benign envy”, on the other hand, motivates and drives employees to perform better. It is a type of envy which originates “when a person who is ultimately successful reveals personal failures from the past, it makes the observers attribute this person’s success to effort, and thus may perceive more authentic pride,” say the researchers. Observers may view this person as deserving of respect for the success, and feel that they can emulate the individual to reach the same level of success, they add.

Falling is Good

In 2016, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University in the US, published a “CV of failures” on his professional website for all to see. It included degree programs and awards he applied for but didn’t get, paper rejections from academic journals and research funding he didn’t receive. When asked about the decision to publicize his failures, the paper mentions, Haushofer explained: “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. 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.”

Success is Not Always The Answer

We glorify success so much that failure is seen as a sign of incompetence. In an article published in 2010 in the journal Nature, Melanie Stefan of the University of Edinburgh, who was the inspiration behind the “CV of failures”, argues that though we might be aware of our accomplishments and failures at the workplace, our colleagues only see the accomplishments since we are vocal about them—and that could be discouraging.

“As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others,” writes Stefan. “Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

Stefan suggests people create a CV of failure, to remind themselves that failure and success are both part of life. “If you dare—and can afford to—make it public. It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist—and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again.”

As Google’s chief Sundar Pichai says, “Wear your failure as a badge of honour.”

Pooja Singh

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A stickler for details, Pooja Singh likes telling people stories. She has previously worked with Mint-Hindustan Times, Down To Earth and Asian News International-Reuters.