Self-Disclosure Inspires Trust

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 and inspire trust 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 othersOne 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.

(This article was first published in September 2011)

Written by Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D


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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2 Responses to Self-Disclosure Inspires Trust

  1. Great article Cedric. I completely endorse what you’re saying. I’d add that self disclosure through a personal story can be a great way to do this, as it makes it more memorable and is more likely to be passed on to others. I have seen the most hardened (sometimes ex military) managers use a personal story to create a completely new relationship with their peers, within hours of commencing a leadership workshop.

    I also advocate using what Robert Goffee (“Why should anyone be led by you?”) calls “controlled disclosure”: selecting a piece of personal information which shows vulnerability without overdoing it and this undermining others’ confidence in you. John Chambers used to do this very well at Cisco by putting his dyslexia out there.

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