When was the last time you admitted messing up at work? It turns out that sharing these kinds of stories helps people perceive you as a better leader.

What We Want to Do to Blowhards

It’s probably easy for you to remember the opposite situation: an executive who foisted an unending string of her accomplishments on you.

“Within the first six months of taking this job, I increased revenues 20%, cut expenses by 15%, and expanded into a new geographic market that can’t get enough of our products! And then I won an industry award for CEO of the year!”

Even if all these things were true, they don’t have us thinking, “What a great leader!”

Research shows when we hear these shiny accolades, we start to feel badly about ourselves. We attribute that executive’s success to a talent she has—which we don’t. This makes us feel inferior. We also see this person as arrogant and filled with “hubristic pride.”

This can lead to malicious envy: we want to take her down a few pegs. That allows us to justify doing things to slow her down. Taken to the extreme, some people to believe it’s OK to act unethically when it comes to this person.

You can see how corrosive this can be and the disfunction it can create in a team.

On the other hand, researchers did a study involving people listening to a pitch from entrepreneurs looking for funding. One entrepreneur just talked about his wins. Another admitted he’d stumbled along the way. People rated the second person as having “authentic pride” because he had overcome obstacles, and they saw that man as confident.

This inspired benign envy in the listeners. They believed the entrepreneur deserved success—and they also felt more motivated to do a better job themselves.

But I Don’t Want to Look Bad!

Given the choice, most of us would rather dwell on the times we got it right rather than when we stepped in it. This can feel embarrassing, and we believe people will think less of us.

Not so, according to Harvard Business School research. Colleagues will admire you and your achievements just as much if you share your shortcomings, and this won’t affect your status with them.

Tell a “Who I Am” Story

In her book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons shares six different types of stories you can tell strategically. (For more, see these two short articles:  Is Your Story Worth Sticking To? and Is There a Point to This Story?.) The one you want is “Who I Am.”

Your goal is to break down preconceived notions or judgments about you and your motivations. You do this by revealing a flaw or mistake you made, which makes you more human and approachable.

Ready to improve your leadership communication to inspire your people? Let’s talk.