Leadership disclosures: Have you mastered the subtle art of selective vulnerability?

Employees under the guidance of an oversharing boss might need to set gentle but firm boundaries.

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In Nairobi, East Africa’s financial hub, two managers at a renowned financial services firm exemplify the extremes of communication styles.

The first, with a tendency to under-share, often left her team puzzled and disconnected, causing frustration and inefficiency as team members scrambled to fill the gaps in their understanding of project goals and expectations.

Across the hall, another manager overshared, divulging personal anxieties and strategic uncertainties that, while intended to foster openness, often left the team feeling insecure about their roles and the company's direction.

Both approaches stirred unease, highlighting the delicate balance required in managerial communication. Some managers share too much, some not enough. On a personal level, this author also struggles with this sharing dilemma in the teams he leads.

Thankfully, Liz Fosslien and Mollie Duffy's research dives deep into this managerial conundrum, suggesting that the key lies in using selective vulnerability, rather than either blanket openness or a rudimentary closed approach. The goal involves sharing effectively without crossing into oversharing. The researchers describe this approach as a means to build genuine connections without burdening team members with unnecessary emotional or strategic weight.

The art, they propose, involves sharing personal insights or concerns in a manner that invites trust and collaboration without fostering dependency or discomfort among team members.

Effective sharing in management calls for a nuanced approach, striking a balance between personal insight and professional boundaries. On my own side, this author often errors to overshare like an open book. But instead, leaders should, for instance, share a relevant personal anecdote that illuminates a business challenge, thereby humanising the issue without making the conversation uncomfortably personal.

But on the other hand, if we delve into personal dilemmas or display unchecked emotions it can derail team focus and morale, illustrating the pitfalls of oversharing.

Previous research by this author and Graham Dietz showed that if many East African employees feel as though they have overshared in an office, they will prefer to switch jobs and look for alternate employment rather than continue in that same firm. But on the flip side as managers, many times leaders are just not aware of the effects of their own over or under-sharing.

Inasmuch, organisations can play a crucial role in guiding managers on this tightrope of transparency that leaders otherwise would not have thought about. Training programmes can be instrumental, providing scenarios and role-play exercises that help leaders practice the subtle art of selective vulnerability. Such initiatives help managers learn how to gauge the impact of their disclosures, ensuring they enhance rather than complicate team dynamics.

Employees, on the receiving end of either spectrum, can find themselves in challenging dynamics. Those under the guidance of an oversharing boss might need to set gentle but firm boundaries, suggesting alternative ways for their leader to channel personal disclosures. Conversely, dealing with an under-sharing boss may require tactful encouragement for more openness or seeking clarity through pointed questions. In both cases, fostering an environment where feedback flows freely in both directions can mitigate the extremes.

Essentially, the dance of what social scientists deem as “disclosure” in leadership requires careful choreography, where the steps of personal connection and professional integrity must align. As the researchers articulate, mastering this dance not only enhances individual relationships within the team but also fortifies the organisation's overall health and productivity. Leaders who navigate this path successfully find a powerful way to inspire and lead, proving that the heart of effective management lies in the balance of what is shared and what is held back.

Have a management or leadership issue, question, or challenge? Reach out to Dr Scott through @ScottProfessor on Twitter or on email at [email protected]

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