Has this ever happened to you? You visit your physician for an annual checkup and he notes that your weight is up, then talks about how much he is exercising and how much less he weighs than you. Or, you come off a bad relationship and your physician says that he, too, is single and dating can be tough on people of a certain age.
Both examples are true and were reported as part of a study on physician self-disclosure published in the Archives of Internal Medicine; its findings were also reported in the New York Times. In the first instance, the doctor is playing one-upmanship; in the second, he may be getting a bit too personal. Both instances underscore a central fact: a physician's personal disclosure does not build, and may even hinder, patient rapport.
It is not only physicians who wrestle with this issue; anyone who works with people in a development capacity, be it an executive coach or a manager, faces a similar dilemma. Counselors and therapists are trained to establish barriers with their clients, but managers are not. This may be why some managers reveal nothing of themselves and end up coming across as cold fish, while other, overly voluble managers may reveal so much about their personal lives that they actually drive people away.
If you work with others, what do you disclose? There may be no textbook answer, but comfort levels for those who reveal as well as for those who receive must be established. Here are some guidelines:
1. Be discreet. Some people will tell you about their marital history at the drop of a hat; others will not even reveal that they are married. For some, talking about family is an ice-breaker; for others, it's a turnoff. Read people before you reveal yourself. You will pick up cues from their own conversation. If they focus solely on work, roll with it. If they like to mix in facts about family, friends, and whatever, either follow their lead or draw your own boundaries.
2. Reveal for learning. Reveal information about yourself that casts light on what you have learned. For example, it is appropriate for seasoned managers to reveal mistakes they have made at work in an attempt to help an employee understand that most mistakes are not career-enders. Talk about what you learned from the mistake and how it enabled you to meet subsequent challenges.
3. Avoid "alpha dog" behavior. Avoid revealing information about yourself that makes you look superior. For example, if an employee is struggling with a problem, there is no need to chime in about how you've tackled tougher problems, but then offer no assistance. That behavior is a put down that emphasizes how good you think you are and how inferior you perceive others to be. It turns people off as well as away from your management. What's more, no one likes a braggart!
On the other hand, we like to see some personality from our senior leaders. Senior leaders who talk to folks on the factory floor or in line at the cafeteria become popular figures within the company. Communing with the ranks helps to build trust and create followership, both vital attributes in running an enterprise larger than two people.
Bottom line, when personal revelations become too personal, or are used to pull rank or put another person down, they do more harm than good. Such behaviors reinforce domination over others, and when you are trying to establish trust, the heavy hand does little to get people to commit to your vision, mission, and values. But a little small talk never hurt anyone.
Gina Kolata, "Study Says Chatty Doctors Forget Patients," New York Times, June 26, 2007.
Susan H. McDaniel et al, "Physician Self-Disclosure in Primary Care Visits: Enough about You, What about Me?" Archives of Internal Medicine, 2007, 167, 12, June 25, 1321-1326.