Inc. magazine ran a headline this week that said, "Showing Vulnerability at Work Can Hurt You If You're the Boss, Science Finds." Frankly, the headline alarmed me quite a bit. I've always believed that leaders who demonstrate some vulnerability at times can foster psychological safety, and thereby enhance learning and problem-solving efficacy in teams.
I decided to dig deeper. The article cites a study by Kerry Roberts Gibsona, Dana Hararib, and Jennifer Carson Marr. Thearticle is titled, "When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers." What do these researchers find? Based on a series of experimental studies, with undergraduate students as research subjects, they concluded:
In three laboratory experiments, we found that when higher status individuals self-disclosed a weakness, it led to lower influence (Studies 1, 2 and 3), greater perceived conflict (Studies 1, 2 and 3), less liking (Study 1), and less desire for a future relationship (Studies 2 and 3) by attenuating the status of the discloser.
The findings appear robust, but I wonder about the limitations of the study. For example, I wondered: What type of self-disclosure did the students exhibit? How did they demonstrate vulnerability? In one study, they disclosed that they were on academic probation. In another, they told others that the doctor had chided them for being signicantly overweight. These disclosures did not have direct relevance to the task though, and they did not come with any discussion of the importance of this issue to the work at hand. Moreover, the people disclosing these weaknesses did not talk at all about how they were learning from their past experience and trying to improve. Therefore, I have concerns about jumping to conclusions regarding the benefits or costs of leaders acknowledging vulnerability based on this research.
An effective leader fosters psychological safety by demonstrating vulnerability through offering examples that show team members that he or she is not infallible. However, the leader does not simply disclose failures from the past. They should talk about how they have learned from those failures, or how experimentation helped them innovate. They aren't simply blurting out personality flaws or weaknesses without some context!
The scholars do acknowledge the limitations of their work, and they cite possible benefits of expressing vulnerability in work teams. They cite Amy Edmondson's work, in fact. She's the researcher who has done the most groundbreaking work on psychological safety. By the way, Google found that psychological safety is an attribute of high-performing teams, confirming Edmondson's work. Google also concluded that leaders who show some vulnerability tend to create higher levels of safety. The scholars acknowledge some benefits of vulnerability toward the end of their paper. They write:
Finally, although in our studies the goal of the discloser is to influence the receiver, and therefore we describe less influence and greater conflict as negative consequences for the discloser, there may be situations in which increased task conflict and reduced discloser influence actually results in more positive outcomes for the dyad or team (Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006). For example, a team leader might strategically choose to self-disclose a weakness as a way to increase involvement from lower status group members who may be intimidated by the status differences between members of the team.
In sum, be wary of such headlines in popular periodicals. The underlying research often does not sync completely with the conclusion that has been reached by journalists.