1) Build a foundation of self-knowledge.
You can learn about yourself in many ways, but the best approach is to solicit honest feedback—ideally a 360-degree review—from coworkers and follow it up with coaching. You might consider your upbringing, your work experiences, and new situations, such as volunteer opportunities, that test your comfort zone and force you to reflect on your values. You might also consider your personal management philosophy and the events and people who shaped it.
2) Consider relevance to the task.
Skillful self-disclosers choose the substance, process, and timing of revelations to further the task at hand, not to promote themselves or create purely personal relationships. In fact, we found in our earlier work that team development efforts often fail because they try too hard to foster intimacy rather than focusing on task-relevant disclosure and social cohesion. Be clear that your goal in revealing yourself at work is to build trust and foster better collaboration and teamwork, not to make friends—though that may happen. So before you share personal information, ask yourself whether it will help you do your job. Will your team get a better understanding of your thinking and rationale? If not, you might want to save the story for a coffee date with friends. If your goal is simply to develop rapport, you can find safer ways to accomplish that—such as bonding over a beloved sports team, a new movie, or a favorite restaurant.
3) Keep revelations genuine.
This should be a no-brainer, but we’re amazed at how often we hear about managers who fabricate tales. Take Jacob, who recently stepped down from his position as the associate director of marketing and communications for a regional hotel chain. In both presentations and small group discussions, he would cite examples of how he had successfully used social media, video on demand, and search engine optimization in his prior position at a premier boutique hotel. The problem was that he held that job in the early 1980s, before those technologies were widespread. Jacob did have extensive social media marketing experience, but it had come through his volunteer church work; he fudged the details in an effort to bond with his younger colleagues. Eventually they found out, and Jacob lost credibility, which ultimately led to his departure from the company. Making up stories or exaggerating parts of a narrative to fit the situation may seem like a good idea, but it is easily discovered and can do a lot of harm. Instead try to find real if less-than-perfect disclosures that still capture the emotions of the situation and convey empathy.
4) Understand the organizational and cultural context.
Considerable research has shown that people from individualistic societies, such as the United States and India, are more likely to disclose information about themselves and expect others to do the same than people from collectivist societies, such as China and Japan. Thus Roger’s Asian teammates might have been put off by his readiness to share a personal story, care agency. Exhausted after a sleepless night with her sick baby, she shared that experience in her introduction, to the discomfort of her audience. “They wanted to know about my education and industry background, and instead I spoke graphically about baby throw-up,” she recalls. “It took me a few months after that to reestablish credibility.”
This doesn’t mean you have to wait years before telling colleagues anything about your personal life. You just need to have spent enough regardless of its content. Make an effort to investigate national and organizational norms about sharing so that you’ll know when it’s best to keep quiet.
In any context, but especially one new to you that involves teammates from other countries, companies, or functions, you should talk to respected insiders about how people operate and what level of candor is expected. HR personnel and group leaders may be able to provide this information, but you can also test the waters with task-relevant self-disclosure to see how people respond. And you can look for cues such as eye contact and others’ attempts to share or solicit stories.
“talk to respected insiders about how people operate and what level of candor is expected.”
5) Delay or avoid very personal disclosures.
Intimate stories strengthen relationships; they don’t establish them. Sharing too much personal information too quickly breaks all sociocultural norms of behavior, making one appear awkward, needy, or even unstable. First develop common objectives, delineate goals and roles, and demonstrate credibility and trustworthiness through your work. Take careful note of how open others are before offering significant disclosures of your own. In some workplaces you will eventually find it safe and helpful to share; in others you’ll realize it’s extremely unwise to do so.
These five steps should help you avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve outlined and become a more effective leader.
Remember to think carefully about your motives and likelihood of success. Self-disclosure is a valuable managerial tool, but it must be used judiciously. What stories do you have to tell, and who needs to hear them?