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Afraid of Negative Self-Disclosure? Surprising Insights for the Business World

kokou adzo

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people sitting in front of computer monitors

It’s common wisdom and an important guiding principle: When at work, avoid sharing negative information about yourself. Your colleagues don’t need to know about your struggles with road rage, that you’re too lazy to recycle, or that you have herpes. If you’re having an extramarital affair—best to keep that private, too.

There may be times, though, when negative self-disclosure, or what we perceive as such, is necessary in the workplace. We may need to take responsibility for forgetting to do an assignment or divulge that we lacked a particular skill or didn’t understand the directions.

If we need to take an extended leave of absence to pursue inpatient treatment for anxiety or depression, we may have to share that we are experiencing a health issue; and, when everyone else from the office is heading to happy hour on a Friday afternoon, our best tactic may be honesty about the fact that we’re in recovery.

In these instances, our fears of being judged or of damaging our reputation and job security can often cause us to keep secrets that are not good for us or for our employer. But are these fears realistic, and to what degree should we let them dictate our behavior?

Fears of Sharing Negative Personal Information “Overblown”

New findings from a study at the University of Texas at Austin help to shed light on this question, and the findings are reassuring. Such fears, the researchers found, are “overblown” and even, at times, completely inaccurate. Why?

Here is how study author Dr. Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at Texas McCombs School of Business, put it, in a news release in ScienceDaily: “When we’re thinking about conveying negative information about ourselves, we’re focused on the content of the message. But the recipients are thinking about the positive traits required to reveal this secret, such as trust, honesty, and vulnerability.”

Kumar and his team conducted various experiments, in which they had one group of people share a wide range of negative information about themselves with another group of people. What the researchers found was that negative self-disclosure is not as self-damaging as we think it will be.

Even more encouraging, though, was what happened when people were able to tackle their fears enough to confide in another person. Those in whom they confided were “significantly more charitable than they expected.” They also were more apt to notice the honesty and trustworthiness of the person who shared the information.

Other Takeaways from Study

The study uncovered some other valuable takeaways, too. For example, people consistently overestimated the negative impact of their self-revelations—even when what they shared was a darker secret such as infidelity. Regardless of what was shared, the recipient of the information was more charitable than expected.

Another discovery was how honesty had feel-good effects. When test subjects unburdened themselves of their secret—this after learning the results of the study and that people overestimate the damage of their self-disclosure—they felt better.

One Important Caveat to Keep in Mind

Keep in mind that the results of this study are inevitably skewed to a certain degree, in that they do not reflect the dynamics of an office setting. (After all, the same experiments would be impossible to conduct in an actual workplace.) Even so, Kumar shared his belief that the lessons from this experiment can be applied to the business world—and contain helpful insights for building trust and rapport with colleagues.

Final Application for the Business World

Ultimately, there is much reassurance to be found in the knowledge that our fears are not an accurate gauge of how our negative secrets will be received. This finding is not a license to be reckless with self-revelation but can enable us to face our fears and push through them in times when negative self-disclosure is necessary. In this sense, Franklin Roosevelt’s words again ring true: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

 

 

 

Kokou Adzo is the editor and author of Startup.info. He is passionate about business and tech, and brings you the latest Startup news and information. He graduated from university of Siena (Italy) and Rennes (France) in Communications and Political Science with a Master's Degree. He manages the editorial operations at Startup.info.

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