Image isn't everything for executives, research suggests

Many leaders try to remain perfectly poised through their business's highs and lows — but employees are more skeptical of "flawless" leaders than openly imperfect ones, according to recent research reported by Harvard Business Review

The article was written by business professors at Washington, D.C.-based George Washington University, Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University and Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University. The authors conducted research, which was published to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, to better understand why leaders struggle with authenticity. 

A summary of their findings:

  • When asked to write how they would introduce themselves to prospective workers, most leaders only shared their strengths.

  • When leaders do disclose their weaknesses, people perceive them as more authentic regardless of the leader's gender. The higher the leader's status, the stronger the positive response to an admission of shortcoming.

  • There are limitations to disclosure. Leaders who disclose relatable faults, like incompetence with technology, are seen as more authentic but not more warm or competent. And serious shortcomings, like poor behavior toward employees, is unlikely to gain the executive points, according to the authors.

  • When shown a clip of a leader giving a speech that does not include a disclosure of weakness, people believed the leader was motivated by "strategic self-presentation." However, after watching the clip of a speech that does disclose weakness, people believed the leader was unfiltered and genuine. 

The bottom line: Motivation is key when discussing weaknesses as a leader. An executive's facade should not be too firm. 

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