Three people at a desk

Fruitful foibles

Revealing minor flaws helps leaders project authenticity, according to new research by information systems expert.

Most people can reach into their memories and recall a teacher, manager, or coach they loved or at least liked enormously, someone who made them want to do their very best. For organizational leaders who'd like to be that kind of boss, there's a shortcut to it: Show employees you're authentic. It's easy to do by offering some snippet of unflattering self-disclosure.

This was the main takeaway from research conducted by Assistant Professor of Information Systems Reihane Boghrati and three colleagues with expertise in management and marketing. In a world where most people avoid revealing their weaknesses, the scholars found that mildly self-deprecating admissions can positively impact leader-employee relationships and the organizations these people serve.

If truth be told

Several scholars have studied leaders' perceived authenticity in recent years. Citing prior studies, Boghrati and her team wrote in a recent paper, "When followers perceive leaders to be authentic, they experience greater well-being, are more trusting of the organization, perform better, work harder, and make more ethical decisions." The researchers also noted that employees prefer working with leaders they see as authentic. This is particularly true for Generation Z, born in 1997, and subsequent years.

What stops leaders from coming across as genuine? For one thing, leaders think they need to have others see them as highly competent, great speakers, and confidently decisive, Boghrati says. "That's how leaders try to present themselves," she adds. "They'd have to put in the effort to break out of that stereotype."

Leaders also have another bias that impedes less-than-complimentary self-disclosure: They do not see its potential. In pilot studies, the research team found that leaders "don't think that if they disclose something personal, it will them appear more authentic," Boghrati explains.

In addition, leaders are like most people. They'd rather tout their strengths than weaknesses.

The research team confirmed this by asking 110 full-time U.S. managers to write something good about themselves, something neutral and something unfavorable. Then the researchers asked the managers which, if any, of the three facts they'd use when introducing themselves to a new hire at work. More than 96% chose the strength, 65% would mention the neutral item, and 35% would disclose the weakness. "They are not using this approach because leaders are unaware of its impact," Boghrati says.

In her research, exposing a few warts worked well for leaders. It made employees more willing to work with them, and, in one experiment, employees were even willing to entrust money to the leader, who would then refund those dollars and more later. Sensitive self-disclosures also didn't prompt the study participants evaluating the leaders to think less of those self-critical bosses. The admission of minor quirks and issues consistently enhanced the leaders' image as authentic players.

Recipe for rapport

The research team performed multiple experiments with full-time professional workers to see what worked in conveying authenticity. Some experiments were done as written vignettes, some as videos, while some were face-to-face, scripted role-playing interactions in a lab. In each experiment, participants were introduced to a leader who either presented something negative about him or herself or didn't. For all experiments, the sensitive self-disclosure was limited to something work-related, such as being a poor public speaker, having trouble keeping up with technology, or lacking time-management skills. The researchers chose such admissions because they felt these confessions could plausibly lead employees to question the leader's ability to lead effectively.

After introducing the leader, participants were asked a series of questions to gauge if they'd prefer working with the leader who revealed personal imperfections over the one who didn't. All 11 of the experiments the researchers conducted indicated a preference for leaders willing to dish up a little dirt on themselves. A 12th study analyzed leader disclosers on a social media platform. That, too, showed that people respond more favorably when leaders admit flaws.

"When you self-disclose, it's signaling that you are not thinking about every single word you're saying," Boghrati explains. "It looks like you're not filtering what you say. I think it's more like communication in closer relationships, like friendships."

She says it also indicates you're not strategically trying to project an image of perfection.

The disclosure must be voluntary to ensure that admitting some weakness will boost perceptions of authenticity. That was discovered via an experiment where participants saw written self-introductions from potential bosses. Each introduction had a minor, confessed weakness thrown in, and half of the participants were told the leader had been ordered to make that self-critical comment. When self-disclosure was considered involuntary, it extinguished people's perceptions of authenticity in the leader and made the participants less willing to work with that boss. The impact was even more pronounced when the leader, forced to reveal a weakness, was high on the organizational ladder.

In the real world — not a lab — leaders should ensure that their sensitive self-disclosures appear impromptu, Boghrati says, and she recommends such comments be tossed out in a meeting or hallway chat. Confessions of weaknesses wouldn't work if the company tried to paint all executives as authentic by making each one add some minor failing to their online biography blurb. People would see through that, she says.

Another thing that affects the impact of those sensitive self-disclosures is the status of those talking. "If I disclose something to someone in my rank, they wouldn't necessarily see me as more authentic," Boghrati explains. She thinks this relates to the stereotype people have of their leaders as being somehow beyond weakness, so their self-deprecating admissions have more punch. "We saw that effect in both the studies that we did and also in the field data that we had from the social network website."

Boghrati's last advice for those hoping to foster authenticity by confessing imperfections is a word of caution. "The things we had leaders disclose were small and innocent. If you've done something immoral or there is something about you that has a stigma around it, maybe that's not a good thing to self-disclose," she says. "We haven't tested that part, but I think there is a bar for how much information you will share."

Still, she thinks managers should share much more than they naturally do. "The effects of self-disclosing are larger as you go up the ladder," she says. "This approach will help you be perceived as more authentic. It's good for you and the whole firm."

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