It’s a truism of modern business life: the best leaders are honest, transparent, and emotionally open. After all, why not harness the power of authenticity? Why try to be someone else when Google searches will ultimately reveal the truth about you, anyway?
And yet, as many executives recognize, there’s a fine line between being an authentic leader and sharing too much – the delicate balance between disclosing just enough to make yourself vulnerable (Amy Cuddy revealing in her popular TED talk that she was once hobbled by a serious brain injury that she overcame to become a business school professor) and way more than people want to know (former South Carolina Governor – and recently-elected Congressman – Mark Sanford’s in-depth recounting of his extramarital exploits.)
A while back, I had coffee with my friend Michael, who told me a colleague of his had written a memoir and mailed him a copy. “That was nice,” I offered. Michael winced: “I wish he hadn’t.” Apparently, the business colleague – whom my friend had only known in a professional context – discussed a serious personal issue in the book. Now Michael wasn’t sure what to say to him, or what kind of response would be welcome.
As we all reveal more and more information about ourselves online (Mark Zuckerberg has famously argued for the existence of a Law of Social Sharing, which posits an exponential increase in the amount of data people share), navigating these questions becomes tricky. If you Google a job applicant or co-worker (or especially if you’re connected to them on a social network), it’s often easy to deduce their political preferences, religion, or sexual orientation – things that, in the past, you weren’t really “supposed” to know unless they told you. And as the act of content creation (blogs, podcasts, even memoirs) becomes cheap and easy for regular people to undertake, you’re likely to learn even more about the people around you. So how do you begin to determine what’s the right balance of sharing in a professional environment?
First, it’s essential to consider whether your disclosure is relevant to the matter at hand. If a co-worker tells you she’s struggling with addiction, that may the perfect moment to share the story about your brother successfully getting sober, whereas talking about it out of context may leave others unsure how to respond. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the hit TV show Scandal, talked about this phenomenon recently in the New York Times. “We’ve been trained on television to watch characters of color discuss their race incessantly,” she says, and she considers it a step forward that her show only mentions race when it’s specifically relevant to the storyline.
Next, you want to evaluate the depth of your relationship with the other person. The day Michael told me about his over-sharing business colleague, I had a disclosure of my own to make: I’d just broken up with a longtime partner. That’s information I would never tell a new acquaintance or someone I was meeting for the first time; it would emotionally overwhelm the encounter. But I consider Michael a friend – someone who would, in fact, be upset if I didn’t share the news – and he was glad to receive the update.
It’s also important to recognize how important the issue is to you. Everyone has different litmus tests; if I philosophically diverge with a colleague about the best way to handle immigration reform or drug policy, it’s easy for me to “agree to disagree.” But other issues carry more weight. I certainly don’t require potential clients or collaborators to know all the words to “YMCA,” but I do consider it mandatory for anyone doing business with me (as an openly gay person) to be reasonably comfortable with the issue; the idea of censoring myself or going through a ridiculous charade of editing out pronouns simply isn’t worth it. (Indeed, the Center for Talent Innovation’s research shows that out employees are generally far more professionally successful than their closeted counterparts.)
Finally, it’s worth asking whether the information you’re sharing will be helpful to others. In my new book Reinventing You, I interviewed entrepreneur Chip Conley, founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain. “If I can be honest, vulnerable, and authentic in my way of presenting myself inside my company and outside,” he told me, “that’s a helpful tool for others to understand that everybody goes through difficult times…The more we create a divide between the public image and the private reality, the more we create dysfunction.” In other words, he believes his openness will enable others to thrive and become more successful.
That was also the motivation for Robert Fransgaard, who faced the unthinkable when his 39 year-old wife died of cancer. As a result of his experience, he’s become an expert in how to handle “digital estates” and the online footprint of the deceased. In the midst of a painful experience, he told me he was able to take comfort in the fact that “I’ve been able to share my experiences and help other people in the same situation.”
If Mark Zuckerberg is right, the sharing conundrum will only continue to grow over time. That’s why it’s so critical for all of us to determine – ASAP – our own preferred protocols. If you focus on sharing information that’s important to you, helpful to others, relevant to the discussion, and with the right people, you’ll be ahead of the information curve.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on August 26, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.