Podcast: The Case for Admitting (Some) Flaws at Work
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Leadership Aug 28, 2023

Podcast: The Case for Admitting (Some) Flaws at Work

On this episode of The Insightful Leader: Why showing vulnerability can actually be a boon for leaders.

Based on the research of

Maryam Kouchaki

Listening: The Case for Admitting (Some) Flaws at Work
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Leaders are taught to scrub vulnerabilities and weaknesses from their facade, but is there such a thing as too much polish?

There is, says Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

“We assume that powerful people have strategic motives to be seen as good. And for that reason, it’s likely to lead to perceived inauthenticity,” Kouchaki says.

On this episode of The Insightful Leader: the counterintuitive upside to showing people your downside.


Laura PAVIN: When it comes to American workplace culture, we expect business leaders to present themselves as polished—basically, flawless. And I think that’s because there’s this idea that, in order to trust a person’s guidance, we need to believe that they’ve figured something out that the rest of us haven’t.

It’s a pretty crippling expectation. And I think it pushes some leaders to a point where they’re so afraid to admit that they got something wrong that they just don’t. Unfortunately, these leaders are only fooling themselves.

MARYAM KOUCHAKI: We assume that powerful people have strategic motives to be seen as good. And for that reason, it’s likely to lead to perceived inauthenticity.

PAVIN: Ah, authenticity. We think we know it when we see it, right? Kellogg Professor Maryam Kouchaki describes it as this feeling we have when we perceive that someone is warm and genuine. When we encounter people, we must immediately decide whether they are friend or foe. Social perception reflects evolutionary pressures.

KOUCHAKI: So generally, any person, we think about their perceived warmth and competence naturally. That’s part of evolutionary processes that have been in play. So other people’s motives are salient to us.

PAVIN: Kouchaki says we tend to assume that high-powered people are more motivated to be strategic and calculating than the rest of us. At worst, they can come off as phony, which makes us trust them less. So what happens when business leaders and other high-status people actually lean into their flaws and foibles rather than hiding them? Do we end up trusting them more?


Welcome to The Insightful Leader. I’m Laura Pavin. This episode: why fessing up about your relatable flaws could give you an unexpected boost at work. If you’re squirming right now at the thought of telling your employees about, say, your secret fear of public speaking or how you struggle to keep up with new technology, I promise you’ll want to keep listening. That’s next on The Insightful Leader.

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PAVIN: Professor Kouchaki is an organizational psychologist at Kellogg who researches moral psychology and behavioral ethics in the workplace. And her research focuses on two different kinds of authenticity. The first is what she calls “experienced authenticity”:

KOUCHAKI: Experienced authenticity is mostly about this feeling, your own personal feeling, that your behavior is aligned with your true self, your values.

PAVIN: So experienced authenticity is an internal experience—it’s how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror. Are we walking the talk of our values at work? We might think we’re doing a good job, but Professor Kouchaki says there can be a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. That gets us to the second type of authenticity Kouchaki studies: “perceived authenticity”.

KOUCHAKI: This is a quality that others are ascribing to you. It really reflects aspect of you and how others are seeing you, whether they think you’re acting accordance with your true self, whether you are real or fake.

PAVIN: Lately, her research has focused more on perceived authenticity.

KOUCHAKI: At the end of the day, I think how you are seen by other people really matters. And I was curious to really know whether there are ways that we can communicate our authenticity to others.

PAVIN: So a few years ago, Kouchaki came up with some questions she wanted to research.


PAVIN: For instance, what happens when business leaders offer up what Kouchaki calls a “sensitive self disclosure”? In other words, they admit to a personal flaw. Her hunch was that this could actually benefit leaders.

KOUCHAKI: That was our idea, that by sharing more than what people expect, showing that you are less strategic and you are disclosing something sensitive about yourself, that people are going to come across as more authentic, especially leaders.

PAVIN: And to be clear: Kouchaki is definitely not talking about revealing things that reflect negatively on our moral character or competence—things like being unfaithful to a partner, or getting caught shoplifting, or a DUI. She’s specifically talking about relatable workplace weaknesses. You know, like our struggles with time management and being late for meetings on occasion.

PAVIN: So to put her research questions to the test, Kouchaki designed some different studies. In one study, she asked participants to imagine they were new employees at a company interacting with different leaders and managers. She randomly assigned participants to two groups. Both groups got scripts of an imaginary interaction between themselves and the company’s leader. But there was a key difference between the two scripts. In one version, the leader says only positive things about themselves and their preferences.

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KOUCHAKI: The leaders say, for example, “I care about my employees; I take care of them.” I don’t know. “I like hiking.”

PAVIN: In the other version of the script, the imaginary leader talks about those same things, but they also admit to a relatively minor weakness:

KOUCHAKI: Like, “I’m not good at public speaking, I get nervous, my mouth gets dry,” something like that. Or in another study the leader disclosed that they are not comfortable with flying—they are afraid, and they hate flying.

PAVIN: And what Kouchaki discovered was pretty remarkable. Participants in the study assessed the leader who disclosed a minor weakness as being more authentic, trustworthy, and genuine. And they reported they were more likely to want to work with that person in the future. In other words, the leader got a perceived authenticity boost. For a lot of people, this finding goes against common sense. Like, shouldn’t broadcasting a weakness make people take you less seriously?

KOUCHAKI: So, that’s the interesting part about this study, that if we rely on our common sense, we often are hesitant to share this type of information, especially leaders.

PAVIN: One way to imagine all of this is that you have a two-sided scale.


PAVIN: On one side of the scale is how genuine or trustworthy others see us as. On the other side is something more negative, like people thinking we’re not up to the job or task at hand. When we share something vulnerable or negative about ourselves, the scale could tip one way or the other, depending in part on what we choose to disclose, whom we’re disclosing it to, and our position in the organization.

KOUCHAKI: There is this sweet spot that often when you reveal some negative information, you could imagine that that’s going to lead to lower perceived competence. But then the idea here is that at the same time, that could lead to perceived authenticity. And there is that sweet spot that sometimes when you disclose some of these weaknesses, this balance tips toward you being seen as more authentic and likable, rather than you be seen as incompetent.

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PAVIN: Now, if you’re starting to think about which weakness or foible you could strategically share to ride the wave of this perceived authenticity boost, you should stop right there. Kouchaki says that our motives matter, and that people can pick up on our true intentions.

KOUCHAKI: Our theory suggests that it’s not just you knowing that information about the person. I think there is something about the person’s intention that is quite essential here. The reason we are seeing an effect of disclosing the flaw is that you see the person being genuine. The person is sharing more than expected with you. And you would have that perception when it’s voluntary. If it’s part of a script—when you know that the person is forced or asked to do so—then that initial intention that the person wanted you to know and it’s more unfiltered, I think that basically goes away.

PAVIN: Over the last couple of years, Kouchaki has done different versions of her study. It’s a way of checking the robustness of the results. For instance, in one version, she wanted to see what happened when people shared a flaw with a peer colleague, rather than people they are leading.

KOUCHAKI: For peers, we don’t see the boost, but we don’t see a backlash. Rather, you don’t get the boost—especially in trust and willingness to work. You may be seen as more authentic, but I think we didn’t really find a strong effect on trust or other outcomes. The effect is quite strong for leaders, but not peers. But what’s important again here is that there is no backlash. That because you disclose a weakness, now you are rated low on competence or authenticity.

PAVIN: Kouchaki also looked at gender differences. Like would male leaders get more of a perceived authenticity boost than female leaders? She says the gender piece of this research was personally important to her. That’s because female leaders are underrepresented in business leadership and so they haven’t been studied as much. Her research could help to fill in some knowledge gaps.

KOUCHAKI: I think the good news is we found both male and female leaders, when they disclose these types of weaknesses—as I mentioned, relatively minor weaknesses—both could get a boost in terms of being seen as authentic and then likable and trustworthy.

PAVIN: When you’re a leader, you’re expected to be strong for everyone. You set the culture and the feeling of the place. So you put on armor made entirely out of confidence so that everyone else feels good and secure knowing that you’re at the helm.

PAVIN: It’s understandable, then, that you’d be reluctant to show any kind of cracks in your armor. But people need that from you, sometimes. It makes you seem human, just like them.

PAVIN: At the end of the day, how other people see us really matters. But, probably counter to how leaders feel about it, opening ourselves up to being vulnerable and sharing our relatable human flaws at work can go a long way.

KOUCHAKI: So instead of leading people to see you as very polished, getting people to see you as human—as an honest and trustworthy person—I think that’s the goal here.


PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was written by Nancy Rosenbaum. It was produced and edited by Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Susie Allen, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. It was mixed by Nancy Rosenbaum. Special thanks to Maryam Kouchaki. Want more The Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader Podcast.

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