Dualities of self disclosure at the workplace

Illustration by Belén González (Matitafore)

July 13, 2021
By Karolin Susan

Not sure what y’all think about the need for Self-Disclosure in a professional setting, but truth be told, the matter is yet to convince me. There are a plethora of reasons for the latter, one of them being, the outcome after self-disclosure is mostly unpredictable, that there is enough control over what you are about to say until it falls out of your mouthpiece. Moreover, India largely being a collectivistic society, where communal experiences are given more prominence, self-disclosure can be highly stigmatized – collective self over the singular self; Surrounded by such a setting, “What’s best for the group” often dictates the way for the entity.

In the strife to be authentic and honing one’s individual experiences, self-disclosure when hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent, can do us more harm than good.

In the second wave of COVID-19, self-disclosure was a constant theme as many of us mutually shared and disclosed varying losses, sorrows, grief, and other mental health difficulties; It is safe to say, “Self-Disclosure” illuminates the collective suffering of humankind. Of the group therapies I’ve attended, sharing parts of oneself that are often vulnerable to judgement, enables one to feel unified in the journey, although most of us plod along unlikely roads. 

In the workplace context, what do I mean by self-disclosure?

Simply put, “Self-Disclosure is the process of verbally disclosing personal information about oneself to others.” There is much beauty in Self-disclosing; This sheer-as-silk human act also signifies reciprocity in a relationship, making the other who lately self-disclosed or did not, feel trusted and valued with the intimate information of oneself. In a workplace context, self-disclosure can help one feel emotionally supported and recognized for one’s resilience in bouncing back to take over or continue tasks assigned; Additionally, this motivates employers to rely on their employees with organizational responsibilities. This also prompts the employer in deciding together with the employee, to put into effect one’s remarkable potential. Research findings convey that self-disclosure avoids emotional burnout, helps develop components necessary for emotional intelligence, and foster closer relationships, all of which aid in Mental Health support. A field study of self-verification among individuals at the organization’s entry-level process concluded that individuals who are likely to disclose personal information about themselves, including negatives, were evaluated to be better performers in their role and a better citizen in the organization.

Since people spend most of their time at the workplace, self-disclosing happens for many reasons, either to reach out for emotional support, work-related assistance, or because there is little to no inhibition when disclosing about themselves. Self-disclosure also helps in saving one’s cognitive efforts trying to conceal an information, thereby gaining a sense of relief and renewed energy upon disclosing. This brings me to a time where I mustered the courage to disclose my self-deprecating social anxiety to one of my managers. Knowing fully that I’ll never land the job or be valued for other skills, I remember telling her, “I cannot do public speaking or facilitate.” To my surprise, she heard me out and said, “That’s fine, I want you to be comfortable in your skill sets and contribute with a healthy state of mind.” I was spell-bound, considering my battle with self-disclosure and my fear of being dismissed as an “unfit” for the role.

Nevertheless, I am well aware that a part of Capitalism has also reduced humans as a means to an end. In some cases when companies pursues a bottom-line work culture for the sake of quality and revenue, it further persuades employees to perceive anyone in the work-world as a threat. Therefore, work culture embodies character traits of a lone-ranger*, which compromises motivation and makes the lone-ranger vulnerable to depressive disorders. According to the 2019 Economic Times, a survey covering 3000 employees from IT, Manufacturing, financial, and start-up sectors, gathers that one out of every five employees of India Inc suffers from workplace depression. Medical professionals blame this epidemic of the mind as a consequence of the lack of a support system at the workplace.

As Peter Kropotkin, who formulated Mutual-Aid, asserts “working in solidarity with the other plays to the advantage of species than fostering traits that influence predatorial instincts.”  

Illustration by: Nicolae Negura

Illustration by Nicolae Negura

When does self- Disclosure become a double-edged sword? – “Et Tu Brutus.”

 There is no stand-alone easy answer for the Why’s and How’s of vulnerability being exploited. Nonetheless, there are multiple reasons for the chances of Self-Disclosure taking a wrong turn. Organizations that do not value the Mental Health of their employees, either considering it as burdensome to deal with or uninformed on Mental Health challenges, expecting the employees to “leave your emotions at the door”, a carceral work culture, i.e. punitive systems in place, etc. For instance, A friend had disclosed their mental health conditions to their Boss and wanted to see a mental health professional, the boss being reluctant in having the employee see a mental health practitioner recommended that they comply with the in-house lay-counselling given by the other boss. This prompted the individual to cope by the means of “hard work”, so, slacking or getting caught for not complying with the initial recommendation can be avoided, all this inspite of their mental and physical ailments. Although, if the organisation is a high performance one, as the Emergency ward of a Hospital, conjointly, self-disclosure can rather seem like a bump-in-the-road; Regardless of the bumps, efficient systems catering to psychological well-being can be employed.

At the employee level, a team member not knowing when to self-disclose such as being ashamed of their mental health concerns, not letting the employer know they need help for a project, taking the accountability system lightly, that they fail to keep their work and behaviour unaccounted for, even on the premise of mental health challenges, etc. For such reasons and more, it is likely that self-disclosure can turn out to be a double-edged sword.

Self-disclosing can be exhausting, to some it’s easier to conceal than having to be at a place where they’ve got to verbally display parts of themselves, as opposed to their work. Accordingly, it is wise to keep in mind that a certain amount of self-disclosure can also impact the receivers, trigger them, maybe prompting them to react to the disclosure either verbally or nonverbally, further affecting working relationships between both the parties. A couple of studies examining reaction toward self-disclosure, concluded participants having mixed feelings on knowing about a co-worker’s lower self-esteem issue.

So, what can organizations do to build a conducive environment for psychological well-being via Self-Disclosure?

  • Creating a space and making a constant effort, to a degree that the communication channels between employers and employees are approachable and accessible for employees across, as opposed to limiting this for a select few.
  • Making feedback systems a two-way street as an alternative to the top-down approach.
  • Normalizing conversations around Mental-health concerns, practising discourses and self-disclosure around it by the managers.
  • Hosting workshops that provide employees with stress-management tools and information concerning healthy work culture. E.g. Practicing Affirmations with co-workers.
  • Normalising breaks in between work hours and taking longer or shorter breaks on account of a challenging mental health season.
  • Managers can only control their loyalty to the employees, thus understanding that loyalty from the employees is a spectrum.
  • Accountability systems set up across teams. Leading by example and holding yourself in check first, considering that all values are a give and take. Asking necessary albeit awkward questions to your team members as to how to function well as a team.
  • Building strategies and schemes along with the team, for the purpose of taking care of work in case of absence of an employee.
  •  In a High-Performance Environment, systems such as an efficient roster list, and much more can be employed.
  • The levels of self-disclosure not being mandatory practice, but to consider the ease and the rights of the co-workers.
  • Being aware of roles of power and the perceptions of the same from an employee’s point of view.
  • Prioritizing confidentiality and anonymity during self-disclosure.

Employee’s role in practicing authentic self-disclosure:

  • Wait and observe the organization’s culture and colleagues; Try to get familiar with your environment.
  • Listen carefully and take your time to respond upon being asked a hard question by your employers or co-workers. When in doubt, recite “Let me think about it and get back to you.”
  • Take time to build self-awareness: You can do this with your therapist. This will help understand your values, boundaries you need to draw, and information you need to disclose. This will also help you receive healthy feedback from your co-workers, as self-inquiry helps bring to your notice your pluses and areas to improve.
  • Before self-disclosing, inquire to yourself, if the information is germane to the work at hand, would the information you are about to disclose make others feel threatened around you? Would it isolate you, considering how information is perceived differently? Do you have a relationship currency with a person to share the information? Or Is it to promote yourself?
  • Keep in mind the context and the culture of the organization. Is your reality aligning with your organization’s work culture? Will your ideology be stigmatized? 
  • Delay or avoid intimate self-disclosure, if the end goal is only to establish a relationship; Keep in mind if the receiver would find the information challenging to empathize with your story or if they have self-disclosed themselves with you. Take time to build rapport over common interests rather than intimate information on the first go.
  • If the disclosure isn’t met with sensitivity, employees can also take multiple steps to safeguard their psychological well being.
  • Making efforts to work on stressors upon self-disclosing, teaming up with your co-workers/manager to work out a plan to cater to your mental health needs and the task at hand.
  • Practice learning to draw boundaries in self-disclosing on a bigger platform like social media. 

The truth about compassion is that it is a magic wand when not practised out of coercion; Thankfully to my benefit, Self-Disclosure isn’t a commandment, but done out of the willingness of heart, to make space for a safer work-world. May we all take a leaf from Brene’s wise words,

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on ‘going at it alone.’ Somehow, we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we are very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both.” 

Please, leave your comments below or write to us, we’d love to hear from you and your experiences around Self-Disclosure at the workplace.


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