Authentic Leadership: Self-disclosure
A lot of attention is focused on authenticity. A leader must be authentic. But what does it mean to be an authentic leader?
Authenticity can mean that something is real or representative of a category. “We had a meal in an authentic English pub.” Authenticity can mean adherence to an enduring value. “She is authentic. She does not pretend to be someone she is not.”
The issue of authenticity has been examined for decades in the field of psychotherapy. Some lessons from there may be instructive for those in the business world. Among them is how much to use self-disclosure.
A common error of new psychotherapists is overuse of self-disclosure. Striving to make a connection with a new client, the therapist may share excessive details of their life experiences, even if they are not directly pertinent to the client’s situation or requested by the client.
The pressure is especially strong during the pandemic. With so much therapy work being done remotely, all therapists feel pressure to overcome the obstacles imposed by telehealth and make a connection with the client. And pandemic or not, some clients prefer to work with a therapist who shares their life experiences (for example, preferring a therapist who shares the same sexual orientation as the client).
But self-disclosure by a therapist is tricky. When a therapist shares something about their life experience in a therapy session it turns the focus away from the client receiving help. It opens the door to questions from the client about the therapist’s life. Doing this can distract from the client’s examination of their own concerns.
In the business world, new managers and leaders may feel that to be authentic they need to share something of themselves. Existing managers may be told that they need to show their vulnerabilities to make themselves seem more approachable. Like others, managers and leaders now must contend with remote meetings and staggered on-site office schedules. One might feel it is especially important to share personal details to overcome the distance imposed by the new pandemic-imposed work format.
Yet, a leader’s influence derives as much from what they do as what they say. A supervisor who walks the walk is likely to be seen as more authentic, regardless of how much anyone knows about their life experiences.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you decide to disclose something to those who report to you.
Why am I choosing to share? Is it to seem more authentic or to make a stronger connection? Is disclosing personal information the best way to do this or are there other ways you can make a connection? A leader communicates authenticity by their consistency, their method of trying to understand and solve problems, by being present with those you supervise, and by being empathic.
Instead of sharing personal life details, share your way of thinking. You might say, “Let me think aloud for you about how I am trying to solve this problem, tell you some of the ideas in my head, questions I am asking myself and choices I am deciding between.” Doing this is valuable modeling for your employee.
Can I disclose something related to work experience, rather than personal experience? If you decide to share something more personal, stick to things related to the work environment, rather than your personal or family environment. Frankly, these are likely to be more helpful.
For example, you may talk about a transition that occurred to you in a previous position or how you managed a job responsibility. You will want to emphasize the lessons learned and how meaningful that experience is to you in your present job role. Knowing that one’s supervisor faced a similar challenge can be reassuring to the employee, letting them know that it is possible to get through this challenge and that their supervisor is empathic.
Can you do team rather than individual disclosures? If you are disclosing something to one member of your team, will you also share it with others? Don’t rely on that first person to let others know. How can you be sure that they will present the disclosure information in the same way you did? Rather, focus on team rather than individual disclosures.
For example, a long-term member of the team I led died of COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic (though that person is still very much alive in my memory). My team and I participated in a grief meeting led by an EAP counselor. I shared my feelings as did others. The experience of being together to remember this colleague was a type of self-disclosure among us. Because it involved the whole team it created a connection and did not create a disparity with one person knowing something about my feelings when others did not.
What do you think makes a person authentic? How do you know if the people you work with are authentic? What types of authenticity challenges are you faced with on the job?
Photo: Bas vd Eijkhof on unsplash.com