Self-disclosure is a communication process by which one person reveals information about themselves to another. In the workplace, self-disclosure is necessary to create trust and foster a sense of belonging where people can be themselves. For instance, team members get to know each other by casually sharing about themselves at the beginning of work exchanges. These interactions are essential in creating a climate of warmth that enables trust and promote participation and collaboration, leading ultimately to closer bonds. Transparency and self-disclosure are not the same and are both necessary. Transparency is openly sharing context, expectations, guidelines, and standards, so that employees can make better decisions and perform effectively.
We are social beings seeking to connect and belong in the workplace while maintaining our individuality. The degree to which we manage these fundamental needs of belonging and separation determines the health and vitality of our relationships. When individuals become leaders, the rules of engagement change, and it becomes even more critical to establish this balance between closeness and distance. That is one of the reasons many leaders who rise from the ranks find it challenging to manage their former peers when they have been very close in the past. Now, they must stand apart to inform the team who is in charge when difficult and unpopular decisions are required.
How much we share varies in breadth and depth depending on many factors, such as the type of relationship, the level of trust, context, situation, culture, gender, and style. There are individual differences in the degree to which people feel comfortable sharing. On one side of the continuum are the ones who only share as needed. On the other side are the ones who overshare.
Under stress, we can overdo our natural preferences. We might disconnect or cut off if we are on the private side of the spectrum. If we share a lot, when anxious, we might overshare. Sharing too much at work can backfire on us. A leader must stay close enough to influence yet distant enough to lead with conviction. Influential leaders strive to balance modeling behaviors that promote trust, creating a psychologically safe environment for themselves and their teams.
In bringing the gender lens, women share personal information in the workplace more than their men counterparts. According to Sally Helgesen, the habit of women disclosing too much tend to diminish their credibility with the potential to become a landmine. At least two beliefs can explain why women share too much.
- Self-disclosure enables building solid relationships because sharing vulnerabilities creates a feeling of intimacy and is regarded as a sign of trust.
- Sharing strengths and weaknesses is a way to demonstrate authenticity.
This female way of building trust differs from the standards set by men-dominated workplaces where trust is a byproduct of competence and reliability rather than frank exchanges of personal disclosure.
Women leaders can still create safe workplaces where employees feel comfortable sharing about themselves while being professional and discrete. Learning to strike this critical balance is a journey that takes different ways and forms. Lisa is a very talented leader who shared two ways in which excessive self-disclosure impacted her negatively, one as a leader and one as an employee.
On her last business trip, after ending the working day, she invited two of her direct reports for dinner. They were enjoying the meal, and as they were breaking the ice, the topics of conversation were becoming more and more private. She didn’t want to get too personal even when she was interested in building trust with them. When dinner ended and they said farewells, Lisa walked away feeling uncomfortable knowing what her direct reports had shared about their relationships at home. She felt as if the boundaries blurred, and it felt too close. She even thought if they could not manage their crisis at home, how could she trust them to handle challenging situations with clients or other stakeholders?
Lisa remembers early in her career when she frequently shared her struggles raising her young children with her manager. One time he approached her with this comment:
“I’m considering you for a promotion. You’re probably not interested in this other role because of the issues with your children, right?”. She immediately responded that she was very interested and that her children wouldn’t impede her from growing to the next level and acquiring more responsibilities. From this situation, she realized that sharing too much personal information can risk careers.
These experiences made Lisa more intentional about modeling the appropriate self-disclosure while remaining approachable. For example, sharing glimpses of her weekend and family activities without revealing too much, shared stories to illustrate her values and leadership philosophy and their lessons. She learned to reorient conversation when others were getting too personal. She explored ways to support and challenge them to deliver on their work commitments.
There are best practices to balance the degree of self-disclosure at work. I will use the word DISCLOSE to share eight tips for you to consider:
- Demonstrate Clear Boundaries – People must feel free from emotional disruptions while working. Not revealing too much about yourself will help them focus on the work.
- Intentional – As a leader, be clear about your intent in sharing a story. It should build trust and deepen your relationship with the team, not burden yourself and others.
- Self-knowledge – Knowing yourself – Build self-awareness by understanding your values, leadership philosophy, and the impact you want to create. Seek feedback from your co-workers, as self-inquiry helps bring to your notice your pluses and areas to improve.
- Culturally Appropriate – Everyone grows up with a different cultural norm. Some families share everything, while others are very private. National cultures are different too. Members from individualistic societies tend to share more, while collectivistic tend to restrain their personal information more. Take time to learn about these differences.
- Length of Relationships – Delay or avoid personal disclosure. Sharing too much personal information too quickly breaks all sociocultural norms of behavior, making one appear awkward, needy, or even unstable. Consider that relationships evolve, and the depth of the sharing increases with time.
- Organizationally Relevant – Different companies have different approaches to connecting employees and fostering supportive environments for sharing. Get familiar with your environment by observing the organization’s culture.
- Safe – Assess to what degree the information to share might make others feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Seek to foster self-disclosure that feels safe and natural and promotes connection.
- Enables trust – Be honest, honor your commitments, being willing to admit your mistakes. Establish a climate where people feel safe to be themselves.
Workplaces have evolved to become more collaborative and open than before. The slogan ‘leaving your emotions at the door’ is dated. Now people want to bring their ‘real selves’ to work. The premise is that disclosing personal information is the most direct route to authenticity, but not when it is too much. There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, and sharing too much about you can come and bite you, especially when you are the leader.
Leaders benefit from striking a balance between closeness and distance. Modeling the appropriate level of self-disclosure is essential for leaders who want to create safe and authentic spaces where people can thrive.