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  • Tamar Balkin

Self-Disclosure At Work: What Is The Role Of The Leader?


“ I overshare because I over care

'Bout the person over there

Who's completely unaware that

I overthink, then I overdrink to overcompensate

Yeah, I know there's moments that I'm missing

If I'd just shut up and listen

But silence makes me scared

So then I overshare"


Overshare Song by Kelsea Ballerini (click here for the song)



 

“Yesterday my boss told me about the massive mistake he made on the annual budget that he submitted to the board. He reckons that all our bonuses are at risk. He is personally stressed about meeting his mortgage repayments, and so has been gambling late at night unsuccessfully on shares and at the casino. He hasn’t told his wife or kids. He is really anxious about all the errors he’s making in his work”

Coaching Client


 


What is self disclosure?


“Self-disclosure is an aspect of communication that involves intentionally sharing personal information about ourselves with another person­—information that others generally could not know without us sharing it.”

Tchiki Davis


Technically, any form of communication reveals something about ourselves, the topics we choose to discuss, the self-assuredness in our voice, and the clarity or levity in our storytelling all communicate to others things about us. According to many psychologists self-disclosure is defined as revealing a private belief, thought, feeling, experience, hope, or dream to others. Some researchers define it as the process that grants other people access to our secrets or ‘real self’.



What are the benefits of sharing personal information?


Decades of research on self-disclosure suggest that the act of making oneself vulnerable by sharing personal information about the self typically promotes liking and feelings of closeness.


Self-disclosure is thought to be beneficial (and perhaps even necessary) for forming close, intimate social connections for the following reasons:

  • People like someone more who discloses to them

  • People like someone more who they have disclosed to

  • People disclose more to someone they like


Thus when appropriate self-disclosure not only builds on itself but generates upward cycles of self-disclosure that help build strong, intimate relationships.


Researchers have found that in the work context, presenting a ‘better’ version of oneself to one’s co-workers can be emotionally exhausting, it causes stress, harms immunity, and may lead to disease. When individuals self-disclose weakness to a colleague, they liberate the cognitive resources they have been expending trying to hide that information, and thus tend to experience relief and renewed energy, which researchers have found can increase job satisfaction and performance.



What about the recipient?


Recent research has highlighted the conditions in which self-disclosure can harm relationship development, in the workplace. They found that when the content of the self-disclosure is inconsistent with perception employees have of their leader and of senior staff in general, it is likely to negatively affect the receiver’s perception of them.


The disclosure of information that highlights any type of weakness is an act of vulnerability, as it often exposes insecurities it may communicate a desire to be supported. The discomfort for the employee emerges when there is a belief that the role of senior leadership is to provide, not receive, support. In fact, researchers found that self-disclosure in this context may undermine the leader’s influence, encourage conflict, and weaken relationship quality. In contrast when the disclosure of weakness comes from a peer, there is less, if any, impact on conflict, or relationship quality.


Researchers found that the act of self-disclosing a weakness has a tendency to make the leader seem less competent or more inappropriate. In contrast this will not occur to the same extent if the discloser is a peer. This difference is in part due to the loftier expectations of a leader’s competence and appropriateness.


“an irony of self-disclosure: although higher status individuals may disclose information about their weaknesses to a coworker in order to reduce the social distance between them and foster a better working relationship, their disclosure may have exactly the opposite effect.”

Gibson, Harari and Marr

How do you decide what and when to share?


Answering the following questions will serve as a guide:

  • Why are you disclosing?

  • What is the specific PURPOSE ?

  • Will the information achieve your aims?

  • Is there an alternative approach?

  • What are the benefits?

  • Who are you telling?

  • Is it about your need for validation, power or influence?

  • How are you doing it? in person, on the phone, in private, etc.

  • What amount of information is appropriate?

  • How can you ascertain if the conditions are suitable?

Researchers have found that the timing in the conversation is particularly important: when it occurs in the middle of a conversation one can ascertain how ready the other person is to hear what you have to say, or if they are in the right frame of mind. In addition, it is essential to provide time for the listener to process the information presented and respond in the way they want.


What about the positives?


Regular readers would know that communicating personal positive events with others is associated with increased daily mood and well-being, above and beyond the impact of the positive event itself and other daily events. In addition, when others are perceived to respond actively and constructively (and not passively or destructively) the benefits were further enhanced. When good news is recognised and validated, positive social interactions occur, and self-esteem is elevated. Researchers proposed that this process provides one central mechanism, for the upward spiral of positive affect and well-being described by Barbra Fredrickson. (click here for my blog on savouring moments ).


In contrast destructive responses tend to decrease or even reverse the positive affect produced by one’s good fortune.


How should you respond to others who self-disclose their vulnerably?


Researchers have found that the best approach to self disclosure is to listen with empathy and without judgment. Regular readers would know that this is easier said than done and requires self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.



So what about my client?


She told me that after her boss’s very personal disclosure she was literally lost for words. As she tried to formulate the most appropriate response, she began to realise that in that moment perhaps her role was to simply remain quiet and sit with him for a while.


At the end of her coaching session, she said to me “I have the opportunity to gently follow up on his wellbeing. Perhaps in time it will be appropriate to encourage him to get professional financial and psychological support.”


 

References:


Davis, T. (n.d.). Self-Disclosure: Definition, Examples, & Tips. [online] The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. Available at: https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/self-disclosure.html.


Gable, S.L., Reis, H.T., Impett, E.A. and Asher, E.R. (2004). What Do You Do When Things Go Right? The Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Benefits of Sharing Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), pp.228–245. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.2.228.


Gibson, K.R., Harari, D. and Marr, J.C. (2018). When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 144, pp.25–43. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2017.09.001.

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