By Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen
In the workplace, disclosing too much can undermine your capacity to be seen as a trusted and discreet professional.
It’s more often women who over-disclose than men. Why is this? Two reasons: Either they assume that building good relationships and finding common ground requires the sharing of personal information, or they’re convinced that being authentic depends on disclosure.
Let’s look at each of these beliefs in turn. It’s not difficult to understand why women might assume that the building of strong relationships is sustained by self-disclosure. Researchers like Deborah Tannen who study women’s communication styles note that women deploy personal information as the primary means of bonding with one another. They share private hopes and dreams but also dissect their faults and problems, detail doubts about themselves, and reveal the messy details of troubled relationships. This frank exchange of shared vulnerabilities creates a feeling of intimacy and is regarded as a sign of trust.
By contrast, men rarely build relationships by exchanging intimacies or dissecting problems. Men are more ikely to bond with one another by doing things together, often in highly competitive situations. So a subtle (or not so subtle) one-upmanship often characterizes male bonding. This dynamic leaves no place for the sharing of vulnerabilities. The difference in male and female bonding styles generally serves women well, making them more likely than men to form close and long- lasting friendships. Many researchers believe that women’s zest for building intimate personal friendships and resilient support networks is one reason women live longer than men and report being happier in virtually every culture, except those in which their autonomy is severely restricted.
But workplace cultural standards around the world have been almost entirely set by men, especially at the leadership level. Trust at work is generally viewed as a matter of competence and reliability rather than frank exchanges about what makes you tick. This is why routine personal disclosure, especially the sharing of doubts and weaknesses—“I guess I’m insecure” or “sometimes I feel lonely in this job”— is more likely to diminish your credibility than to win you a place in your co‑workers’ hearts. Although the emotional tenor of the workplace is shifting as women gain greater influence and personal information is more freely exchanged than in the past, disclosure still represents a landmine for many women.
The habit of disclosure can also be rooted in the simple belief that talking about your problems and weaknesses is the most direct route to being, and being viewed as, authentic. Authenticity has become a workplace buzzword in recent years, with much talk about the importance of bringing your “real self” to work. The idea is that being fully yourself will free you to be more creative, connect more deeply with colleagues, and find a more passionate point of engagement with your work. Certainly there’s a degree of truth in this, and pretending you’re someone you’re not is never going to qualify as a good practice. But the relentless emphasis on authenticity can be a trap, blurring boundaries that most organizations continue to honor and enforce even as they sing the praises of authentic engagement. And it’s a trap most likely to ensnare women, who may feel encouraged to abandon qualities of professionalism and discretion in the pursuit of being fully authentic.
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