“Authenticity” is the new buzzword among leaders today. We’re told to bring our full selves to the office, to engage in frank conversations, and to tell personal stories as a way of gaining our colleagues’ trust and improving group performance. The rise in collaborative workplaces and dynamic teams over recent years has only heightened the demand for “instant intimacy,” and managers are supposed to set an example.
But the honest sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences at work could be a double-edged sword: Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent with cultural or organizational norms which will hurt your reputation, alienating your teammates, fostering distrust, and hindering teamwork. Getting it right would require wisdom, for leaders at any stage of their careers.
Where Leaders Slip
Authenticity begins with self-awareness: which entails knowing who you are, what are your values, emotions, and competencies and how you’re perceived by others. Only then can you know what to reveal and when.
Good communication skills are also key to effective self-disclosure; your stories are worthwhile only if you can express them well, which required a good storytelling abilities. We typically encounter three types of executives whose lack of self-knowledge causes their revelations to fall flat : oblivious leaders, bumblers, and open books and two types who fail because they are poor communicators: inscrutable leaders and social engineers. (However, people often fit into more than one category at least some of the time.)
Oblivious leaders don’t have a realistic view of themselves and thus reveal information and opinions in a manner that appears clueless or phony. For example, imagine a director of sales and business development for a global software company whom sees herself as an inclusive, participatory, and team-oriented manager and likes to tell stories about her time as a junior staff member and how much she valued having a voice in decisions. But her subordinates consider her to be highly directive and thus find her anecdotes disingenuous. As one employee puts it, “I don’t care if you make every decision, but don’t pretend to care about my opinion.”
“I don’t care if you make every decision, but don’t pretend to care about my opinion.”
Bumblers leaders have a better understanding of who they are but not of how they come across to others. Unable to read colleagues’ social cues, such as body language and facial expressions, they make ill-timed, inappropriate disclosures or opt out of relationship building altogether. This behavior is particularly prevalent in cross-cultural situations when people aren’t attuned to differing social norms.
A case example, Roger, a partner in a multinational consulting firm who was assigned to help boost market share for the firm’s newly formed Asia-Pacific office (different demographic). When asked to coach a team that had recently lost an important account, he decided to share a story about losing his first client. In the United States, anecdotes about his own mistakes had always made his subordinates feel better. But Roger’s Asian colleagues were dismayed that their new leader would risk his honor, reputation, and influence by admitting weakness.
Open books talk endlessly about themselves, about others, about everything; they’re too comfortable communicating. So although colleagues may seek them out as sources of information, they ultimately don’t trust them. For example, Jeremy, an outgoing senior manager with a sharp mind but a string of failed management consulting engagements. When people first meet him, his warmth, intelligence, and ability to draw them into conversation make them feel as if he were an old friend. But his aggressive familiarity soon wears thin (“I know more about his wife than I know about my own,” one former colleague says), and his bosses question whether he’s discreet enough for client work. Indeed, Jeremy was asked to leave his most recent job after he used a key meeting with a prospective client to detail work he’d done for several others, not only outlining their problems but identifying them by name.
“I know more about his wife than I know about my own,”
Inscrutable leaders are at the other end of the spectrum: They have difficulty sharing anything about themselves in the workplace, so they come off as remote and inaccessible and can’t create long-term office relationships. Ariva is a registered dietitian who expanded her private practice into a full-service nutritional guidance, exercise training, and health products company. Although she’s talented and passionate, she has difficulty retaining employees, because she fails to communicate her enthusiasm and long-term vision. Recently featured on a panel of female entrepreneurs, she opted to present a basic annual report and outline her sales strategy rather than to captivate the audience with a personal story, as others had done. Afterward, the other panelists were flooded with resumes and business cards; Ariva had lost out on the significant benefits that can come from appropriate self-revelation.
Finally, social engineers are similar to inscrutable leaders in that they don’t instinctively share, and to bumblers in that they often have difficulty reading social cues, but their chief shortcoming is the way they encourage self-disclosure within their work groups. Instead of modeling desired behaviors, they sponsor external activities such as off-site team building. For example, Andrew, is a unit head at a financial services firm with an ultracompetitive corporate culture. Every year, he sends his team on a mandatory retreat run by an outside consultant who demands personal revelations in artificial settings. Yet Andrew never models or encourages self-disclosure in the office and he looks the other way if employees exploit colleagues’ self-revealed weaknesses to get ahead. When we asked one of Andrew’s direct reports about the most recent group getaway, she said, “I learned that I hate my colleagues and my manager even more than I thought.”
“I learned that I hate my colleagues and my manager even more than I thought.”
Executives who make any or all of these mistakes may appear to be simply incompetent. But their cautionary tales are much more common than you might think, and we can all learn from them. In our work we’ve seen even the most self-aware, talented communicators err in how, when, or to whom they reveal a personal story. Everyone should understand best practices in self-disclosure.