Showing a Weakness Makes Leaders More Authentic - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #877

Showing a Weakness Makes Leaders More Authentic

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


When leaders are willing to disclose a weakness, they are perceived as more authentic, which in fact strengthens the perception by others of their leadership attributes.


One of the prized attributes of successful leaders today is “authenticity.” Research has shown that leaders who are perceived as honest and genuine and remain true to themselves positively impact the well-being of their employees, inspiring them to trust the organization, work harder, and perform at a higher level.

In their quest for power and status, leaders tend to focus intently on their skills and accomplishments, believing that if they display weaknesses, they will be negatively judged as leaders. Focusing solely on strengths, however, can undermine perceptions of authenticity: these leaders can appear to others to be manipulating their public images, rather than showing their true selves.

Are leaders thus more likely to be perceived as authentic if they reveal their shortcomings in addition to their strengths? A research team from four U.S. universities searched for the answer through a series of eleven experiments exploring the link between the self-disclosure of weaknesses and heightened perceptions of authenticity.

In one experiment, for example, 300 participants imagined they were new employees of a fictitious company meeting a manager they could choose to work with. To some participants, the manager described his position at a multi-billion-dollar company, adding that he climbed mountains and collected folk art. To other participants, the manager added to this description a major weakness: his massive fear of public speaking. All participants were then asked to rate the manager on authenticity, competence, and warmth. The results showed that the manager was perceived to be more authentic when he revealed a weakness. Whether or not he revealed a weakness had no impact on participants’ perception of his competence or warmth.

One variation on this first study showed that changing the weakness (from speaking to the inability to keep track of technological changes) led to the same results on all three measures. Other variations showed that disclosure of vulnerability led to greater perceptions of authenticity regardless of gender, and regardless of whether the manager was liked or disliked.

Another experiment replicated the process of the first experiment a manager describing only positive attributes to some participants and revealing a weakness to other participants but added a question: “To what extent does the manager’s self-introduction seem strategic.” In essence, participants were being asked if the manager had a motive for describing himself the way he did. (A salesperson’s flattery of a prospect, for example, would be considered strategic.) Participants were more likely to believe that the manager who disclosed a weakness was not engaging in strategic self-presentation. Further analysis showed that this perceived lack of strategic self-presentation explained why self-disclosure led to a greater appearance of authenticity.

Further experiments revealed the influence of voluntariness and status in strengthening the impact of self-disclosure on the perception of authenticity. Participants who were informed the manager in one experiment revealed a weakness because he was told to do so were less likely to consider the manager as authentic than participants who were not given this information. In another experiment, participants who were told the manager was a senior manager were more likely to consider the manager as authentic than participants meeting a lower-level manager.

The benefits of authenticity were also highlighted in the research. In one experiment, participants interacting with authentic managers they perceived as authentic were more likely to say they would be willing to work with the manager than participants interacting with perceived non-authentic managers. In another experiment, participants were more willing to entrust money to authentic managers than non-authentic managers. The causal effects revealed in the experiments were reinforced by anecdotal field evidence drawn from posts on a professional social networking platform open to employees of selected advertising and consulting firms. The researchers analyzed the reactions (options were “like”, “helpful”, “funny”, “uplifting” or “smart”) and comments in response to nearly 1500 posts by senior leaders in consulting firms. Posts that included sensitive self-disclosure (content that could make the senior leader vulnerable to being judged negatively) were more likely to garner positive reactions and comments than posts without sensitive self-disclosure.


Through a significant number of studies involving a variety of participants, from survey volunteers to students to working professionals, this multi-faceted research makes a strong case for an idea that will seem counterintuitive to many leaders and managers: to strengthen your appearance as a leader, you should reveal your weaknesses. High-achieving managers will be especially reticent about displaying their points of weakness. As a result, they should be encouraged to intentionally show that they are not perfect and that they are not afraid to show their flaws. Being intentional in displaying their weaknesses, however, comes with a risk. As shown in the research, involuntary self-disclosure can be dismissed as inauthentic. To make a strategic determination to show your flaws is not any better than strategically hiding those flaws or believing that you have no flaws. In sum, managers can hardly be commanded to be more authentic. They might be convinced, however, that transparency and openness about weaknesses will be beneficial for them, their employees, and the organization as a whole.



Li Jiang’s profile at George Washington University

Leslie John’s profile at Harvard Business School

Reihane Boghrati’s profile at Arizona State University

Maryam Kouchaki’s profile at Kellogg School of Management


Fostering Perceptions of Authenticity via Sensitive Self-Disclosure. Li Jiang, Leslie K. John, Reihane Boghrati, Maryam Kouchaki. Journal of Experimental Psychology (December 2022).

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Idea conceived

January 29, 2024

Idea posted

Mar 2024
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