Study: Bosses should think twice about showing vulnerability

How much do our coworkers need to know about our personal lives? Recent research shows that it may depend on one’s age and rank.

According to a LinkedIn and CensusWide survey, your answer differs partly depending on your age. The survey found that the majority of millennial employees are willing to divulge intimate details that would be considered taboos in previous generations, such as how much they make and marital problems and family problems they’re experiencing. Advocates of honesty and transparency say this can be a good thing.

Social scientist Dr. Brené Brown, for example, has given a TEDx talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” and the “courage to be imperfect” that has reached millions of people. Brown argues that acts of vulnerability can help us overcome failures by helping us grow comfortable with discomfort. She has science on her side. Research has proven that self-disclosures can benefit our personal relationships by making us seem more likable to our friends and intimate partners.

But the power of vulnerability is situational. Over-sharers at work beware: A new study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes found that disclosing personal information to our coworkers can backfire and make us seem less powerful and influential in their eyes.

Bosses are a special case

In three lab experiments, researchers got their student participants to believe they were working with task partners who were perceived to be going to higher-status schools than they were. During a get-to-know-you exercise, students in the manipulated group had high-status partners who disclosed a potential weakness in their chats. The researchers defined potential weaknesses broadly as what had “the potential to trigger weakness attributions or assumptions about the discloser.” Some of the potential weaknesses participants heard were doctor visits, a history of past poor performance, and seeing therapists for their mental health.

The researchers found that self-disclosures like this signal vulnerability. When the students thought they were hearing vulnerability from someone they thought was a peer, they did not rate that person’s status lower. But when the students thought they were hearing a weakness from someone from a higher status, that discovery resulted in “diminished perceived status and consequently less influence, greater perceived conflict, less liking, and less desire for a future relationship.”

The role of hierarchies at work

So why can we support vulnerability in our peers and friends, but not in our high-status leaders and bosses? The researchers theorize that it’s because our workplaces operate under rigid hierarchies with clearly delineated roles. We set higher expectations of behaviors in people ranked above us, and when bosses disclose vulnerability that upsets the status order. We may start to doubt their ability to lead us.

“Once a status order has been established, group members are expected to engage in behaviors that support and justify their status position in the group (i.e., status markers) because these behaviors reaffirm the legitimacy of the status order,” the study says. “A high-status individual who displays vulnerability – a direct contrast to the confidence and assertiveness expected of them – behaves in a way that violates the expectations of their status position and does so at the risk of having their status ‘taken away.'”

What you should do

If you want to share personal news with a peer at work, go ahead and spill. Bonding over shared miseries and triumphs can bring you closer together to the coworkers coming up alongside you.

But if you’re a manager, think twice before disclosing your shortcomings to the coworkers you lead. To be the most effective leader to your team, there are some parts of your life that may be better off staying private.