Why what you disclose may reveal more than you think

The confidential requirements of many business decisions can create a feeling of isolation for leaders. By nature of their roles, they may already feel constrained in sharing their real feelings with subordinates.

Yet, leaders are expected to exhibit high emotional intelligence, as author Daniel Goleman has emphasized. There is also an expectation of high engagement and of being visible as a “real person” to be admired. Personal disclosure may be important to fully connect with others.

To balance these two dynamics — professional detachment and authentic engagement — there are a few guidelines for leaders to follow to know what to disclose and when too much information becomes counterproductive.

Inappropriate disclosure

It may be easier to recognize when leaders have crossed the line into inappropriate behavior than when they have applied optimal approaches.

A few examples may bring home the point:

  • Talking negatively about direct reports or colleagues to others in the organization in a manner that is out of context to appropriate business decisions.
  • Consistently turning the conversation to what is important to the leader versus focusing on others.
  • Overusing colleagues to help address outside personal problems.
  • Disclosing nothing. An overly private person may be a turn-off. This can also lead to never asking personal questions of others that will help establish and maintain appropriate connections.
  • Being too honest, forthright or excessively direct. Such a leader may not understand the nuances of communication or aligning with others.
  • Emphasizing values in rigid and absolute terms.

Effective disclosure

An appropriate level of self-disclosure will emerge if a leader aligns with others and balances personal disclosures with seeking information from others. People who regularly interact with such a leader will find it easy to get to know him or her.

Examples of what a leader can do to strike the appropriate level of self-disclosure include:

  • Being open about personal beliefs and feelings.
  • Having the courage to be imperfect; being open when mistakes are made.
  • Sharing awareness of personal weaknesses and situations that are out of the leader’s comfort zone.
  • Letting others know of strengths and interests that may add value.
  • Highlighting the reasons behind actions and behaviors to better align with others.
  • Sharing what is known or happening in the organization.
  • Discussing personal interests and activities that are not work-related.
  • Using stories to personalize experiences.

How to improve

Recognize if there has been inappropriate disclosure in the past, and develop a change strategy. Relationships must be remediated before people will be more comfortable. A simple admission of mistakes and a willingness to change may be sufficient.

Look for opportunities to practice the effective approaches noted above in the areas of low risk. Success will build on itself after some early wins, and the leader can be more strategic overall about effectively connecting with others.