Transparency or TMI? Finding the Right Balance as a Leader


Jennifer, a new manager, is struggling with burnout. Suddenly, she’s responsible not only for her own work but also for the career success, mental health, and happiness of 12 team members. She has a 6-month-old baby at home waking her up several times a night, and perhaps because of the sleeplessness and work stress, things haven’t been great with her husband. In a one-on-one meeting with an employee, Jennifer breaks down and confesses that she doesn’t feel fit to lead the team. An hour later, after Jennifer has tearfully spilled the details of a nasty argument she had with her husband the night before, the employee leaves Jennifer’s office feeling empathetic but powerless to help, which affects her concentration for the rest of the day. She can’t resist sharing what she learned with a co-worker, and soon the entire office is gossiping about Jennifer’s personal problems.

Is there such a thing as too much transparency? In a society obsessed with it — from a CEO’s political leanings to what they had for lunch last Tuesday — it seems that everywhere we turn, we’re encouraged to bare our souls and reveal our innermost thoughts and feelings. What began on social media has now permeated the workplace. Not only are leaders expected to divulge strategic business decisions to the entire company, but they’re also encouraged to be open about their personal struggles, mistakes, and shortcomings. In an era when people are still experiencing deep burnout and starting to be anxious about losing their jobs, getting the transparency balance right is becoming more important.

The question of dosage

To be sure, it’s great that leaders are no longer expected to be superhuman. When managers model vulnerability and admit mistakes, they help create a climate of psychological safety — where employees feel safe to speak up and take risks without fear of repercussions.

Moreover, as social beings, our brains are hardwired to share our thoughts and feelings with others. A desire for relatedness — the feeling that we belong to and are accepted by a group — is a strong motivator of human behavior. When we observe the emotions of others, mirror neurons fire in regions of our brain involved in experiencing similar emotions. Therefore, as leaders, it makes sense that sharing our thoughts and feelings with our team will help them understand and empathize with us.

But just like “bringing your whole self to work,” too much transparency can backfire. Instead of building relatedness, oversharing by leaders can actually create uncertainty in team members, burden their cognitive capacity, and cause them to question your leadership. According to Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, effective leadership requires “managing the tension between authority and approachability.” Excessive transparency can swing the pendulum too far to the approachability side; too little can make us overly authoritarian. So how can a leader avoid crossing the fine line from transparency to TMI?

Admit mistakes — and what you’ve learned

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s an important part of learning and growth. In the past, managers might have been tempted to brush aside their missteps or pass blame to someone else, believing any sign of vulnerability would cause employees to question their leadership. Luckily, many leaders now recognize that admitting their errors makes employees feel safe to experiment, take risks, and make mistakes as part of the learning process.

However, instead of just saying “oops” and moving on, leaders should openly analyze what went wrong and what they’ll do differently next time. For example, a sales manager who lost a major deal should share the reasons the client decided to go elsewhere and brainstorm strategies for tackling similar situations in the future. Then everyone can learn from the mistake, and the focus isn’t on the failing.

Keep sharing work-related

Sharing that you’re not feeling your sharpest because of a sleepless night with a sick toddler is helpful information for your team. Divulging your latest experiences on a dating app is not. Before you share personal information at work, ask yourself: What’s my purpose for sharing, and how’s it helpful to my team? If the purpose is to vent or emotionally unburden yourself, the sharing is probably best reserved for your family, nonwork friends, or therapist.

Mindlessly spewing every thought and feeling can not only make your co-workers uncomfortable, but it can also tax their brains and create sensory overload — making them want to disconnect from you rather than connect. Although everyone needs friends and confidantes, remember that it’s not your team’s job to help you work through your feelings, fears, and self-doubts.

Focus on employees’ needs

Another downside of too much transparency is it can cause a leader to look excessively inward. When leaders worry too much about their own thoughts and feelings and how co-workers perceive them, they stop paying attention to their employee’s needs. For example, when an employee is discussing a problem with a leader and the leader interrupts with a similar experience and how they handled it, the focus shifts away from the employee.

Although the leader had good intentions (sharing struggles and building relatedness), the employee may feel their problem has been minimized. In addition, by assuming the employee’s situation and solution are the same as their own, leaders risk mistaking the employee’s perspective. Therefore, instead of relating every issue to your own personal experiences, ask questions to fully understand and address your employees’ unique needs.

Sometimes it’s OK to fake it

At one time or another, most leaders have questioned their ability to lead. But baring your soul about your self-doubts and perceived inadequacies could cause your team to view you as less competent. This doesn’t mean you should lie or oversell your abilities; instead, it means that you don’t have to divulge every shortcoming in the name of full transparency.

For instance, instead of telling your team you’re a terrible public speaker, approach the limitation with a growth mindset: You might not be a naturally charismatic conversationalist, but you can improve your public speaking skills with effort, training, and practice. Chances are, your flaws aren’t as obvious as you think. The illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which their thoughts and emotions are apparent to others — so there’s no need to compulsively draw attention to your shortcomings.

Here are a couple of ways Jennifer could have avoided crossing the line from transparency into TMI. First, as she felt herself getting overwhelmed during the one-on-one, she could’ve told the employee she was having an especially difficult day but overall was OK. Then, she could’ve asked the employee how she was feeling and if there was anything Jennifer, as a manager, could do to help. Research shows that helping others is a good way to reduce your own stress levels. Or, realizing she wasn’t in a productive emotional state, Jennifer could have rescheduled the one-on-one for another day and communicated to her team that she was taking the rest of the day off. Chances are, these approaches would not only help Jennifer manage her own stress but also model vulnerability, empathy, and self-care to her team — which ultimately adds up to just the right amount of transparency.

Author: Laura Cassiday, Ph.D.

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