Why Leaders Should Beware Sharing Personal Weaknesses

Being honest and transparent is generally seen as a positive thing in the workplace, not least because doing so enables weaknesses to be identified, and thus addressed, in a safe environment.  New research from Georgia Institute of Technology suggests that whilst such candor can be beneficial in personal relationships, it’s not always beneficial in the workplace.

The researchers wanted to examine how personal disclosures can impact not only the relationships between colleagues, but also their subsequent effectiveness and productivity levels.  What’s more, such disclosures can be especially harmful for higher status individuals.

“We may think that sharing personal information is always a good thing, but what we found is that when higher status individuals, which could in real situations include star employees, share personal information that highlights a potential shortcoming, it can affect the way they are perceived by coworkers,” the authors explain. “This is important because it could undermine their ability to be an effective manager.”

Frank disclosure

The researchers conducted a number of experiments whereby participants were required to complete a number of virtual tasks with each other.  Their partners were either of a higher or similar status.  Unbeknown to the participants, the partner was actually a confederate in the study, and they would disclose personal information to their partner.  The information could be perceived in a range of ways, including positive, neutral or as a form of weakness.

The study revealed that when high status people disclosed weaknesses to lower status people, they suffered a ‘status penalty’, which resulted in them being not only liked less, but also less influential during the performance of the task.

“A lot of the current conversations that we hear about leadership is that we want leaders to be authentic and to bring their true selves to work, but our findings suggest that if doing so reveals vulnerability initially such as sharing their flaws, it could have a negative impact on how well they’ll be able to influence the people that they work with,” the authors explain.

The team believe their work is important because it’s common in modern organizations for leaders to be incentivized to disclose weaknesses in a bid to forge closer relationships with their team, and therefore to work more effectively together.  The findings remind us that doing so may have some unintended consequences, including a loss of influence.  That this pattern only emerges when higher status individuals disclosed personal weaknesses could have significant impact for leaders.