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Do you really want to know? The paradox of self-disclosure in workplace relationships

When should you share your weaknesses or self-disclose in the workplace? It turns out that the research on this topic is getting more complex.

For a long time we’ve known that self-disclosure generally strengthens relationships. Consider this scenario. Julia shares with her new coworker Seiji that she’s nervous about an upcoming client meeting. He commiserates about his work with other difficult clients and how hard it is to deal with them. They each feel more connected and understood. Studies show that we simply like and trust one another more when we are able to share more intimate aspects of our lives.

Among leadership experts, there is a push to be authentic at work, to embrace what makes us unique and to be ourselves. Often this means sharing some personal information about who we are, both strengths and weaknesses. When we disclose a weakness to someone senior to us, not only are we more likable but we are also more likely to get help. Similarly, in mentoring relationships, the more protégés disclose the more support they receive from their mentors.

Yet research by Dana Harari, Kerry Gibson, and Jennifer Carson Marr cautions that leaders need to be more careful about such disclosures. Across three experiments, they found that when someone of higher status disclosed a weakness, they were actually less likable and became less influential on the task at hand.

Self-disclosure is key for increasing closeness in personal relationships. However professional relationships are sometimes more complex. Evidence-based insights that identify under what conditions certain actions foster workplace relationships help us all navigate more effectively.

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