When Sharing Hurts

Organizational behavior researcher Kerry Gibson sat down to answer a few questions about her study, When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers for the Quiet Revolution community.

For people who haven’t heard of your work yet, can you please describe your findings in a few sentences?

In a series of experiments, my coauthors–Dana Harari and Jennifer Carson Marr–and I simulated work environments and studied what happens when someone self-discloses personal information about themselves while completing a task with a coworker. We found that the type of personal information shared mattered as much as who did the sharing.

When a higher status person, such as a star employee, disclosed a weakness (rather than neutral or positive information), they lost status in the eyes of their coworker, and their coworker experienced more conflict with the discloser, lower relationship quality, and was actually influenced less by the discloser throughout the task. Interestingly though, when the discloser had similar status to the coworker to whom they disclosed, they didn’t experience any of these negative outcomes.  

 

What led you to investigate this question?

My interest in self-disclosure emerged years ago when I was working in the corporate world.  A colleague posted a curious photo on social media and it made me wonder how other people at work would respond to the photo. Although the studies we designed are actually quite a bit different from this scenario – self-disclosing a weakness rather than sharing a questionable photo – my interest in how self-disclosure impacts work relationships remains a central research question to me. I believe that we don’t know enough about how self-disclosure – through social media or face-to-face interactions – impacts the ways in which our relationships at work emerge and develop. In my mind, so much of work is based in dyadic relationships. So, I focus my research on trying to understand how work relationships develop and are maintained.

 

For those who value authenticity–and who feel that authenticity includes being open about our vulnerabilities–what should we do? Is there an effective way to be vulnerable with colleagues who are “lower status” than we are–or should we regretfully conclude that this is one area where we should make do without full authenticity?

First, I think you raise an important point about the role of vulnerability in authenticity. I agree with you–I think vulnerability can be an important part of authenticity, or being true to who you are. However, I am starting to wonder if there might be ways to be authentic without immediately revealing all your vulnerabilities (and by that I mean revealing insecurities and flaws), as some people tend to do. In other words, my work has made me question my own tendencies to share my vulnerabilities indiscriminately. (I could share more here, but I’m really trying to learn!)

Our research suggests that initially self-disclosing weakness to colleagues with less status is not the wisest plan. Because this study was conducted as a lab experiment focused on people working together on a project for the first time, we can’t readily generalize our findings to ongoing relationships. More research is needed to determine whether such self-disclosures could be received differently in the context of established relationships, such as a “lower status” colleague with whom you’ve worked for years. It’s also possible that there are ways to mitigate the potential downsides of disclosing weaknesses to “lower status” coworkers.

That said, I think this study highlights the fact that not everyone will react to the exact same disclosure in the exact same way. Our findings show that when we hold everything else the same, peer versus lower status coworkers react very differently to the exact same disclosure. So, until we have more research on the nuances of self-disclosure, I think we have two choices.

On the one hand, we can continue to be vulnerable whenever it feels authentic, understanding that it may harm some of our relationships. For some people, living authentically and vulnerably may be worth the cost.

On the other hand, our findings have made me question how to better balance authenticity and vulnerability. There may be ways to be authentic without over-disclosing our weaknesses and exposing vulnerability so haphazardly. I’m starting to wonder if vulnerability is a more precious personal resource than I’ve historically given it credit for. Perhaps vulnerability needs to be treated with more respect–a personal resource that deserves more consideration regarding who we share it with and, perhaps when we choose to share it.

 

What’s next for you?

There are so many questions about work relationships I want to explore! First, I plan to continue my work on self-disclosure primarily because I think it’s such an important part of relationship development. I don’t think we knew enough about it before social media entered the story, so now that social media enables self-disclosure to occur in so many intentional and unintentional ways, I think it’s more important than ever to understand the effects of self-disclosure on work relationships. Second, I’m continuing the work I started with my dissertation where I try to unpack the relational implications of self-compassion. Your questions have made me wonder if there’s a connection between self-compassion and the need to share vulnerability that I haven’t considered before. Maybe these streams of research are more related than I realized!

Share your thoughts.

Let’s keep our discussions reflective, productive, and welcoming. Please follow our Community Guidelines and understand that we moderate comments and reserve the right to delete comments that don’t adhere to our guidelines. You must sign in or sign up to comment.
  • Mary Goetsch

    Yes, I think the issue is hierarchies; it is a natural characteristic of all social animal societies. Some institutions/corporations use it to both parties’ advantage: royalty, clergy, movie stars, authors, composers- where we do not know their personal lives- are purposely placed on a pedestal so that the masses look up to them and get warm, fuzzy emotions which are pleasant to experience. No one complains.

  • Sally G

    I wonder if we can question the question here…maybe the problem is nothing to do with vulnerability but with hierarchies…

    • Carolyn Barry

      I agree.

  • Carolyn Barry

    One night I dreamed I was walking on a floor of clouds of roaring fire. Each time I took a step forward, I left my imprint. The closer I got to the door in front of me. Many hands, no faces, would appear pulling me back. Those hands look like my hands of all the stages of my life (Infant, child, teenager and adult). Each hand would appear before me displaying all of my weaknesses, vulnerabilities, experiences and life. They taunted, groaned, and lash out. I tried to turn back to follow my footprints from the beginning. It appeared they went on for miles. I turned back facing the door as I screamed out, what do you want from me. The fire beneath my feet went silent. Then a soft voice begin to whisper in my ear, “acceptance”. As the hand of the infant, the child, the teenager and adult inside of me touched my heart. I felt numb. Then a soft voice again begin to whisper ” I forgive you”. I begin to shout loudly pulling myself with force toward the door. I am not my weaknesses, I am not my vulnerabilities, I am my own woman. Damn! I am human. As I reach the door and opened it. There stood before me. Carolyn.

    If we cannot authentically be ourselves in the workplace. Then we can never have self compassion for anyone on any level. That’s when your weaknesses and vulnerabilities become someone else’s target that has no self compassion.

  • Connie Tolman

    I just had this exact situation occur that’s been bothering me for a few months. The situation is with two younger women. I’m in my mid-60s they’re in their 30s. I was trying to share the growth of being a woman in the corporate workplace. It seemed like it was working well – we were sharing. However once one of the women no longer worked for me and she transferred over to a new group they both started acting very differently. The one who had transferred to a new group started acting as if she looked down on me and pitied me. The other one who had worked there longer was condescending and explaining everything and even interrupting me in meetings when I’m at a higher authority than she she is superior to me because she knows about my weaknesses.

    Thank you. Look forward to more insights. As usual the greatest contribution of this group is knowing you’re not alone.