Authentic leadership is built on the premise that leaders should strive to be transparent, or willing to show as much of their feelings as they can, without stepping over boundaries. Handled skillfully, authenticity can help build trust and bring together work groups to pursue common goals, ultimately increasing job satisfaction and productivity.
But where do the boundaries lie that separate authenticity and TMI, or too much information? Walking this line requires skillful maneuvering around what topics to talk about, as well as when, why and how to have those conversations.
What is authentic sharing?
If you must announce a business decision that might be unpopular or challenging, you’ve been given a perfect opportunity to model skillful and helpful authentic sharing.
When you announce the changes, strive to be empathetic, sincere and genuine, without being condescending. Don’t overshare or divulge your personal feelings. However, you might say something like, “I know; I understand. It will be difficult for me, too.”
Why is sharing a good thing?
Authenticity helps people see leaders as more human and relate to them on a “me too” level. Being able to show vulnerability, that you’re one of the team, helps build trust and a feeling of common cause.
If you can talk about your own challenges – focused in the context of the lesson learned – it removes you from the leadership pedestal and strengthens the team bond. But it must be pertinent to the subject at hand.
Stepping over the line can damage credibility, raise doubt in your leadership skills and make a not-great situation worse.
How to be authentic without oversharing
Being effectively authentic calls for a good deal of self-management, and knowing what and what not to do.
1. Do: Examine your intent
Be sure the information is relevant to the job and the other person or people. Focus on them, instead of yourself. Bad reasons for sharing include to:
- Relieve your own tension
- Feel better about yourself
- Fit your agenda to make a certain point
- Impress the other person or make them like you
2. Do: Think before speaking
Process what you will say before you open your mouth. The last thing you want is an incoherent emotion dump that helps no one.
3. Do: Look for teachable moments
Know your audience and gauge its readiness to hear what you have to say. Sharing too much information at the wrong time, or before employees are ready, can derail your efforts.
For instance, if feelings are extremely intense, such as during the termination of a fellow employee, you might want to wait until things have settled a bit.
4. Don’t: Mistake authentic sharing for an opportunity to complain
Sharing appropriate, relevant information doesn’t mean venting to employees. Not only is this bad for morale – it will also likely backfire on you down the road.
5. Don’t: Talk behind another person’s back
In the words of Stephen Covey, “Honor the absent.”
6. Don’t: Share secrets – yours, the company’s or other people’s
Any time you share information, make sure it doesn’t put anyone else at risk. A good rule of thumb is to never share anything about another person – even your mom – unless you have permission.
7. Don’t: Get too emotional
Steer clear of your emotional hot buttons. You don’t want an employee to have to ask, “Are you OK?” during your conversation.
8. Don’t: Share anything that starts like this
If you feel the need to begin a conversation with, “Don’t tell anyone, but …” or “Keep this between us,” or “Off the record,” it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.
How to rein it in
Despite your efforts to keep sharing on a professional level, some employees may assume you’ve put down a welcome mat for any and all conversations – even those that are inappropriate or uncomfortable. Here are some pointers to help keep it professional.
- If you’re not sure you want to share information or you’re still processing how to handle a situation such as a recent business development, don’t be afraid to say so. Simply say, “I haven’t thought it through. I’ll get back to you on that.”
- If an employee asks for details that are more personal than you’re comfortable with, try answering a question with a question. For instance, if a team member asks if you’ve ever been depressed, you could try to find out what they’re really asking by saying, “Tell me what’s behind your question.”
A good leader can sometimes turn around such a question by saying, “When you ask that, it makes me wonder if you might be depressed. Would you like to talk about it?”
- If you share information with an employee, decide beforehand how far you will go. After that, shut it down calmly and professionally. For instance, if an employee’s mother recently died, you might divulge your common experience by acknowledging it is a difficult time and expressing sympathy. You could share a life lesson learned such as, “It really made me realize how important it is to savor every moment.”
If the employee presses further, you might say, “I don’t want to go into a lot of details. But it was a difficult time for us.”
Remember, certain topics are always off limits. These include HR issues, personal information (about you, your family or another team member), health conditions, job performance and locker room talk. If an employee brings any of these topics up, calmly and firmly let them know that such information is confidential and must be respected.
Want to learn more about what you should and shouldn’t discuss in the workplace? Download our free e-book, Employment Law: Are You Putting Your Business at Risk?