The Power of Self-Disclosure

Posting written with Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

Self-disclosure is the sharing of intensely personal life details with people who normally would not be privy to that information. Self-disclosure is generally seen as a “no-go” in business because it can leave the discloser vulnerable vis-à-vis others. However, if used wisely, self-disclosure can have just the opposite effect: it can strengthen a leader’s position, especially in the area of team building.

How Self-Disclosure Strengthens Leaders

An organization cannot be effective without a climate of trust, mutual respect, and encouragement. When leaders selectively disclose personal information, such as how they struggled, then failed, to reach the best decision, they reveal their humanity — their common ground with others. It is through this connection that interpersonal trust and respect grow.

Self-disclosure strengthens a leader’s position in several ways:

  1. Greater approachability. Employees want to feel an affinity with their bosses; they want to identify with their leaders. In an interview with the New York Times, Peter Löscher, president and CEO of Siemens AG remarked: “I’m always telling people, ‘Look, I make a mistake every day…’’’ When he says that, his employees see him as an ordinary person with foibles like themselves. This encourages employees to think: “He openly admits that he makes mistakes so he’s not going to judge me harshly when I make them.”
  2. Learning compassion for one’s self and others. One of the toughest lessons in life is to acknowledge one’s mistakes and imperfections without self-judgment. Too often people beat themselves up (and others!). Self-compassion entails learning from your mistakes and continuing to improve without allowing those mistakes to diminish you or inhibit future action. When Peter Löscher said, Look, I make a mistake every day…,”  he ended with “…but hopefully, I’m not making the same mistake twice.”
  3. Developing greater levels of trust, loyalty, and friendship. Some conditions lend themselves to fast and deep bonding; surviving cancer is one of them. While one of the authors was coaching an executive, the executive was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. The author had been through the same process. In sharing their stories of courage and persistence, they forged a deeper bond of trust. As a result, they addressed work issues at a more philosophical level, leading to significant leadership growth.

How to Make Self-Disclosures

It is important to follow four guidelines when making disclosures: establish your purpose, know your audience, satisfy the audience’s needs and develop their trust.

  1. Clarify your purpose for sharing.  You could choose to reveal your mistakes and setbacks, for example, in order to encourage others to be persistent in the face of discouragement and failure. The message: “I’ve been there; I understand and identify with you.  I made it and you can make it too”.
  2. Know the cultural norms of your audience before revealing aspects of yourself. The tendency toward self-disclosure in some sectors of the USA, for example, can seem strange and entirely inappropriate to cultures that are more formal and less expressive. There may be other ways to achieve your purpose.
  3. Meet the needs of your audience. For instance, tell the story of your personal struggle to help the audience with theirs. Don’t reveal information that is not helpful to the audience—it could make them feel uncomfortable instead of inspired or encouraged.
  4. Build bonds of trust with key employees and goodwill with employees, in general, before you disclose personal matters. If employees, as a group, have had little direct experience with you or have developed low morale or resentment, self-disclosure can backfire. You may find the group using your personal revelations against you.
  5. In self-disclosing, use self-deprecating humor – it will humanize you and make you more approachable.

Case Study

At 39, Jim was the youngest and newest senior vice president in a manufacturing business. He had earned an MBA and advanced engineering degree. When Jim was referred for executive coaching, the referral noted: “He is our best and brightest but he intimidates everyone; this is resulting in decreased collaboration and low morale.”

Jim was, in fact, a sensitive individual who cared deeply for others but his colleagues did not perceive him that way.

Jim took some important actions in self-disclosure to become more transparent to his team and build their trust:

  • In meetings, instead of giving the right answer (and he was usually right), Jim disclosed that he was trying to be less opinionated and more inclusive.
  • With his (trusted) boss, Jim expressed vulnerability by admitting that he needed personal time off because of family problems.
  • Jim told his team that he was working on listening and validating their opinions without jumping to conclusions. He said he was trying to sound less interrogative by asking more open-ended questions.

When Jim made public his fallibility and desire to change, others identified more with him and were less intimidated. By listening carefully and acknowledging others’ input, they trusted him more. Collaboration increased as team members began to express their ideas and concerns more openly.

If used wisely self-disclosure does not weaken leaders, it empowers them. The key is to know when and how to use it.

Bios

 Cedric B. Johnson, Ph.D.

Cedric is an executive coach, consultant, and psychologist. He is a coach with Aon Hewitt Consulting and an independent consultant with Korn/Ferry International. He has a consulting partnership in leadership development with his wife, Kris.

 Kristine S. MacKain, Ph.D.

Kris consults with Cedric in their leadership development partnership; she also was a coach with Aon Consulting and Cigna Behavioral Care. Kris was an assistant research professor at Cornell University Medical College in the Department of Psychiatry in New York City and is a retired educator.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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8 Responses to The Power of Self-Disclosure

  1. Louise Carr says:

    I’m so glad that you posted this! This is related to some issues that I have been debating a lot with myself and colleagues recently: Can you be a good boss to someone and be their friend? Should you be a friend first and a boss second? Or the reverse? How much of yourself should you disclose to your colleagues / superiors / subordinates? Should you really cultivate a professional and a personal persona separately?

    I think a lot of managers struggle with the balance between being friendly and being too close with their colleagues. Sometimes things can get too personal and the majority of the working day can be occupied by people playing relationship politics. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say things like “I’ve spent years forming my professional, serious personality and you’ve broken it in a few months- what have you done to me?” and “I’m completely different out of work”. It doesn’t sit well with me that people feel that they have to hide themselves away at work- especially given that they spend so much time there- in order to be professional but I suppose it is a self-preservation instinct and it is extremely hard to know when and what to disclose.

    Your answer seems incredibly sensible: think about the type of relationship you want with people and let this be your guide when disclosing personal details- if the details are likely to offend, intimidate or frighten your audience think again. This, however in reality can be incredibly difficult to judge. It seems that you have to also have a high level of self-awareness to pull this off.

    A recent example in my workplace of over self-disclosure which had the opposite effect to the intended purpose:

    I work in a small office and we are all very close- too close. We know too much about each other; we know who’s wife has had a boob job, who has debt problems, who harbors secret desires to become a clergyman, who was bullied as a child and who is bisexual. Therefore senior management identify with everyone as if they were friends. One day, about a month ago, one of the entry level employees had a disagreement with the managing director. In order to empathize with this employee, one of the other directors decided to tell the story of when he was in “a similar situation” and “had pissed the MD off”. It transpires from the story that he told, that the MD had a right to be annoyed with the other director- who at the time was just an employee. The other director had tried to leave the company and steal the MD’s largest client at the time- and was rightfully dismissed. Although obviously this decision had been overturned as he was now a director.

    The director didn’t realize the damage that he had done by telling this story- he had revealed to the employee a scenario which he didn’t recognize as a past mistake- and didn’t speak about it as a regret- but rather an illustration of how the MD’s decisions could be overturned easily. Another director in the room also chipped in saying that at the time he was extremely angry too but had now learned how to forget about it. This became a problem for the employee who could not understand why the director had been promoted to a directorship after that had occurred- respect for all three directors had instantly been lost.

    • cedricj says:

      Louise,

      I am deeply grateful for your thoughtful response to the latest posting on Self-Disclosure.

      You raised an entirely different issue, that of personal relationships such as friendships at work.

      In our posting we were addressing more of a strategic self-disclosure where the purpose was the empowering of report, peer, or even the boss. The goal was not necessarily the establishment of a deeper friendship. Hence because it is strategic the subject matter is somewhat more limited than in friendship building. The sharing of some personal details e.g. bisexuality, could well be beyond the scope of such a self-disclosure and if it was, the question would be “Why would one share that personal detail?

      You are so right that self-awareness is one of the keys to a successful self-disclosure. The case you gave of a director sounding off to an employee about the MD is like one of those “ready, fire, aim” situations. With a little more self-awareness and restraint he may have thought twice before he chose to self disclose.

      Thanks again. It is readers such as yourself that makes it so worthwhile for us to write this blog,

      Cedric

  2. studiomarie says:

    This posting is applicable to all types of organization including the sole proprietor like me. I teach workshops and I find the power of self disclosure helpful when teaching students a new skill or approach to art making. Many students put their teacher on a pedestal and many instructors act as if they have all the answers. In fact such behavior by the instructor often hinders learning. If I can get the student to see that I am not infallible and that I make crappy paintings too it gives them an incentive to try a new skill. As my kids often tell me I try not to give to much information (TMI MOM) but self disclosure is one of my tools in teaching art. Marie

  3. Susan Neulist says:

    Your blog, once again, is excellent. I agree that sharing about oneself is so important in almost any interpersonal situation. We all have so much more in common with each other in this big world, than differences. Thanks for your thoughts

  4. Lynn says:

    Great article, really captures the essence Cedric. Thanks for sharing. One of my newly appointed CEO clients recently shared with his exec team during some team coaching that ‘he wasn’t really sure what his priorities were in his new role and needed the support of the team to guide him’. This was hugely powerful learning for all. There is a great deal of trust in this group and strong working relationships which enabled him to say this. A very courageous man. The organisation has benefitted hugely as a result of him taking this brave step. Lynn Scott, Executive and Team Coach (PCC) – UK

  5. cedricj says:

    So much emphasis is placed on our differences, personality, culture etc, and you are right celebration of common ground is so important. I would add that sharing is more effective when there is also a context of trust and respect.

    Thanks for your comment

  6. Pingback: Top 12 Posts of All Time | Cedricj's Blog

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