At work, how much should you self-disclose?

As we circled the Toronto airport, the pilot made a disturbing announcement.

He had to say something; we’d just attempted to land, and then shot back up. So the passengers definitely needed an explanation—even if the pilot had to make one up.

“The problem,” he said, in a somber voice, “is fog.” That sounded like a perfectly good reason to me; I wish he’d left it there.

But then he added, “Several other planes are about to land. Let’s see how that goes.”

Suddenly, the passengers around me looked agitated. And I didn’t feel so good either. Did our pilot know what he was doing?

He didn’t sound confident. And “let’s see how that goes” didn’t sound like a flight plan. A good plan—correct me if I’m wrong here—probably shouldn’t hinge on whether any of the other planes crash and burn.

(Apparently they didn’t. Twenty minutes later, we landed.)

Let’s talk about self-disclosure. Everyone at work has doubts, struggles and insecurities—even pilots. How much should you reveal?

It depends, doesn’t it? Who are you talking with, and how much trust is there? Trust leads to self-disclosure, but it works the other way too—self-disclosure builds trust.

Suppose your manager, for example, tells you that she’s working on being a better listener, and she’d like your feedback. Now, she seems more human, more approachable. And you’re likely to reciprocate.

Or a colleague confides over lunch about his struggles at home with work-life balance; you’re likely to connect on a deeper level.

Here’s another thing about self-disclosure: it’s an effective way to make a point.
Suppose our pilot, years later, teaches a course for new pilots, e.g. “How to Land an Airplane, Without Frightening All Your Passengers.”


He might talk about that night in Toronto, and about his unease. “Even experienced pilots,” he might say, “have doubts. I certainly did that night.” That’s good to hear, if you’re a new pilot.

But not if you’re a passenger on the plane, in mid-air.

Tip: How much to disclose? Depends on your audience.

Stress-test a risky disclosure with two questions:

1) Upside: What does your audience gain by knowing?
2) Downside: How likely are they to want to jump off the plane?

© Copyright 2015 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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