How Self-Disclosure Can Compromise Workplace Relationships
Self-disclosure in the workplace is becoming more popular and commonplace. And perhaps for a good reason: Decades of research on self-disclosure suggest that sharing personal information about one’s self tends to foster goodwill among others. In the work environment specifically, demonstrating vulnerability endears colleagues to one another and can positively influence team performance, organizational behaviors and turnover.
But new research by Jennifer Carson Marr, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, indicates that sharing personal information is not always in an employee’s best interest. Marr and two co-researchers found that when it comes to self-disclosure, the information that’s shared matters just as much as who’s doing the sharing.
They discovered that when a higher status individual discloses a weakness, the receiver’s perception of the discloser is negatively affected. Their relationship quality and task effectiveness are compromised. By showcasing weakness at work, higher status employees may inadvertently trigger their own status loss — which raises the question: What, exactly, qualifies as a weakness? The researchers define it as personal information that “makes salient a personal shortcoming.” In other words, weaknesses fall under a broad umbrella. What could be construed as weakness varies from organization to organization and from team to team. Moreover, a weakness may not be inherently negative (i.e. “I didn’t do well on my performance review.”) — it could also be neutral or positive, for example a woman disclosing her age or that she’s pregnant.
On the other hand, the research shows that peer status individuals do not face this self-disclosure conundrum. When peer status co-workers share weakness, the receiver’s perception of that person remains the same. As a result, the peer status discloser’s influence, potential for conflict and relationship quality are unaffected by revealing weakness at work.
With the lines between professional and personal lives blurring — and with colleagues interacting more frequently on social media — the likelihood of revealing one’s shortcomings and weaknesses increases. For higher status employees, a key takeaway from Marr’s research is to seriously weigh the pros and cons of displaying vulnerability in the workplace. While doing so may help the higher status discloser feel more bonded with their lower status colleagues, it could also lead to a wounded professional reputation.
Read more: When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers is featured in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.