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Leaders, Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Your Flaws

Lots of people, it turns out. New research from the Kellogg School finds that leaders who confess faults are seen as more authentic but no less competent than those who don’t, and that employees prefer to work with leaders who admit their foibles.

In some ways, it’s an intuitive idea, explains Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and a coauthor of the study along with Li Jiang of George Washington University, Leslie K. John of Harvard University, and Reihane Boghrati of Arizona State University. “When we make ourselves vulnerable and when we share some of our failures and challenges, we are seen as more authentic,” she says—and that’s a highly desirable quality in leaders.

The bigger challenge was demonstrating that the specific act of sharing a weakness was driving increased perceptions of authenticity. “Showing this effect in convincing ways across many studies was our approach,” Kouchaki says.

Afraid of public speaking—and authentic

For the first of those studies, the researchers recruited 298 working professionals who were randomly divided into a control group and an experimental group. The online participants were asked to imagine they’d been hired at a fictitious investment firm and were meeting managers they could choose to work with if they wished. Then, they read a statement from one of those potential managers.

In the control group, the manager’s statement included a simple description of his career path and interests outside of work. In the experimental group, the manager also disclosed a fear of public speaking. Then, participants rated the manager’s authenticity, warmth, and competence.

Admitting a fear of public speaking made the manager appear more authentic but no less warm or competent, the results showed—a pattern that emerged consistently in several subsequent experiments in which the researchers varied, among other things, the specific weakness and the gender of the leader. (The discovery that both men and women can benefit from admitting failures came as something of a surprise to Kouchaki: “Initially, my intuition was that we might see this just for men.”)

They also replicated their findings when they tried using a video message from a real Google executive instead of a written statement, and when they ran an in-person experiment in which participants played the role of either manager or employee. Again, participants viewed leaders who admitted small fears and flaws as more authentic than those who did not.

Employees prefer vulnerable and authentic leaders

The first group of studies showed that vulnerable leaders are seen as more authentic. But does authenticity make leaders more appealing? To answer that question, the researchers recruited a new group of 400 working professionals for an online experiment that tested whether people prefer to work with leaders who admit vulnerabilities.

The researchers randomly divided the participants into two groups, managers and employees. Managers and employees were paired together for a four-minute “get to know you” text chat. Before the conversation, the researchers had instructed half of the managers to disclose a personal weakness such as occasional lateness or procrastination during the chat.

After the conversation, employees were asked to rate the authenticity of the manager. They were also asked whether they would prefer to be paired with the same manager for a subsequent experimental task or to receive a new pairing (though in reality, there was no subsequent task).

Not only were managers who disclosed weaknesses perceived as more authentic, the researchers found, participants were also more willing to work for them on another task, suggesting that being seen as authentic isn’t just better in theory—it has positive and practical downstream effects as well.

Strategic self-presentation and authenticity

Finally, the researchers set out to understand why we perceive self-disclosure as more authentic.

In another experiment, Kouchaki and her coauthors recruited a new group of participants and repeated a slightly tweaked version of the very first experiment, about the fictitious investment firm. (In this instance, the manager disclosed a different weakness—his struggle to adapt to new technology.) In addition to asking participants about the manager’s authenticity, warmth, and competence, they also asked participants whether the manager’s statement appeared to be calculated.

Participants who did not hear about the struggles with new technology found the manager more calculated than those who did learn of the flaw, the researchers found. In other words, admitting a failure is perceived as a nonstrategic move. Subsequent analysis revealed a chain reaction: disclosing a weakness makes someone’s behavior seem less calculated, which in turn makes that individual seem more authentic.

This helps to explain another important finding the researchers identified. In order to be seen as authentic, vulnerable self-disclosures must be seen as voluntary. When the researchers repeated the investment-firm experiment again, but revealed to some participants that the manager had been asked to admit a personal failing in his statement, the boost in perceived authenticity disappeared.

“The voluntary nature of this is really important,” she says. People only see you as truly authentic “when you are really being intimate and vulnerable.”

Why leaders shouldn’t be afraid to open up

Of course, Kouchaki notes, the type of disclosure matters. Admitting you’re sometimes late is one thing—but fessing up to lying on expense reports or being rude to waiters is another.

“There’s a sweet spot here,” she says. Personal foibles are more likely to promote perceptions of authenticity than significant moral failings.

Still, many leaders are afraid of admitting even those smaller foibles—and that’s a shame, because it’s a valuable way to build trust and rapport with employees. It’s a lesson Kouchaki says she tries to impart to her MBA students: “Trust people more than you feel comfortable. Becoming a little bit uncomfortable is OK.”


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