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Being too humble can hurt you

Modesty is a universally admired trait. No one wants to be perceived as a braggart.

Surprising research from Ovul Sezer, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler, suggests that not sharing your achievements and successes hurts you more than it helps.

Sezer has found negative consequences for people who refrain from sharing their achievements and successes.

She reports the results of studies she conducted with co-authors Annabelle R. Roberts and Emma E. Levine of the University of Chicago in “Hiding Success” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes.

Sezer’s growing body of research shows our intuitions about social behaviors are often misguided.

For “Hiding Success,” Sezer and her colleagues conducted eight studies involving 1,687 people. They assessed the impact of not disclosing personal and professional achievements, and how that affected their relationships with others.

People often hide achievements from people closest to them, the researchers found. Usually their motivation is to avoid bragging, prevent others from feeling envious or bad about themselves, and feeling awkward about sharing success.

Hiding success ends, however, up doing more damage to personal and professional relationships. Sooner or later, people hear about the achievement.

“When the news reaches them, they get very offended by it. It’s very, very insulting,” Sezer says. “It looks like you’re trying to control how they feel.”

The harms of hiding success

The researchers conducted studies that examined the impact of hiding success in a variety of situations — personal, academic, and professional. Abstaining from sharing achievements and personal successes ends up doing damage on three fronts:

  • Emotional consequences by reducing the happiness someone might feel for your success
  • Relational effects when people feel offended or insulted, reducing the closeness of a relationship, and affecting how someone feels about working with you
  • Impression management, by affecting how likeable and competent you seem

The studies show the negative effects hold true whether someone knows about your achievement when you fail to disclose it or finds out later. And even if someone never finds out that you hid your success, the relationship might still suffer from not being as close as it might be had you shared your good news.

Harming relationship closeness

In one study, Sezer and her colleagues recruited 400 people and gave them a variety of scenarios about either a friend’s success in losing weight or a sibling receiving a large raise. In some cases, the study participant knew about the success, in some cases they didn’t.

When the friend or sibling shared their success, participants reported feeling closer to the person. When the success wasn’t shared, but the participant knew about it, they reported feeling more insulted and less close. Although participants reported feeling envious when they knew about the success — no matter how they learned of it — they also felt less close.

The bottom line: Hiding success increases negative feelings if the other person finds out about the success (or already knew). If the other person doesn’t find out, envy might be reduced, but so will the closeness of the relationship.

In another study, the researchers surveyed academics to see how they would feel toward a colleague who either reported success in the job market or kept it hidden. When colleagues hid their success, the participants were more likely to infer their colleague had paternalistic motivations and more likely to be feel insulted.

Importantly, academics who hid their job market success were rated as less desirable as collaborators — suggesting that in professional relationships, hiding success can damage your ability to work with others.

Direct or indirect hiding

Does it make a difference if you hide success despite being asked about it directly, versus hiding success when asked about it indirectly. In one study, undergraduate and graduate students rated scenarios where they imagined either directly asking a classmate about an internship — “Have you heard anything from the internships you applied for?” — or indirectly — “Hey, anything new in your life?”

Consistent with the rest of their studies, the researchers found that when success wasn’t disclosed in response to the direct question, participants said they would feel more insulted. But even in the indirect question scenario, not disclosing the success led to feelings of being insulted, although those weren’t as strong as in the direct question scenario.

As with the other studies, there was no relational costs to sharing success, but hiding success, if discovered, harmed relationships.

Little to be gained by hiding success

In some of their studies, Sezer and her colleagues found that hiding success could reduce feelings of envy and could increase perceptions of modesty. But hiding success also decreases relationship closeness and reduces perceptions of warmth and competence, among other effects.

So what does that mean for your successes and your personal and professional relationships?

Hiding recent successes in situations where it would make sense to disclose them, such as sharing what’s going on in your life, is likely to hurt you more than help you. In some cases, disclosing your achievements might spark a little envy with friends, family or coworkers, but it also leads to more positive impressions of you and closer relationships.

In other words, if you have good news, you should share it.