Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Sticky Situation: Sharing Personal Challenges with your Team

Deciding what to share and what to keep to yourself.

Key points

  • Leaders need to be human to their teams. Authentic disclosure of personal difficulties can build trust, connection and engagement.
  • Not disclosing personal challenges can create misunderstandings and uncertainty.
  • Proactively sharing your human-ness in an open and vulnerable way opens the door for your team members to do the same.

Q: In the last month, my wife had major surgery for cancer, my dad had heart surgery and my child came out as transgender. It’s been a lot and I know I’m not at my best for my team right now. But to be a good leader, what — if anything — should I share?

Nathan Cowley/Pexels
Source: Nathan Cowley/Pexels

A: Wow. First, please honor and congratulate yourself for simply putting one foot in front of the other through the past month. Life has thrown a lot at you. You shouldn’t expect to carry all this weight without stumbling.

There is a stubborn myth out there that leaders must appear superhuman in order to effectively lead others, that no one will follow a person who admits to flaws or struggles. But research has shown that authenticity and vulnerability are core to trust, which is core to psychological safety, which is core to connection, engagement and innovation.

Not being at our best can show up in a variety of ways: Being absent or absent-minded, reactive or emotionally volatile, disengaged or overly controlling. Regardless, there’s usually a behavior change that your team has noticed. And we all know that unexplained change causes uncertainty and stress. In the absence of another narrative, your team members will make up their own: “This is the new normal and I don’t like it so I should look for another job,” or “I’ve done something wrong and his behavior is due to me and I’m probably going to get fired.”

Decide how much you are comfortable sharing and then be proactive. In your next one-on-one with each team member, say something like, “You have probably noticed that I haven’t been at my best recently. I am dealing with some serious and scary health issues in my family and it’s taking up a lot of my brain space. I want to ask you for some empathy and patience for the next few weeks if I’m not my usual self.” And then reassure them that you want to be a good leader, but you might need more help than usual right now, including speaking up when there is something they need but aren’t getting.

This strategy does a number of powerful things. First, it reduces the uncertainty your team may be feeling; they can focus on their work instead of inventing narratives. Second, it opens the door to them helping and supporting you; research shows that altruism (doing nice things for others) is a win-win situation where both the receiver and the giver experience positive emotions and a sense of connection.

Third, it models your expectations for how the team operates. By proactively sharing your human-ness in an open and vulnerable way, you open the door for your team members to do the same. This means you won’t have to guess when a former star is suddenly no-showing or missing deadlines, because you’ll already know she’s in the middle of a divorce. And she will know that the team will rally around her the way they rallied around you during your time of need. As a leader, this level of trust is priceless.

A note on confidentiality: Vulnerability can be fraught when the weight we’re carrying isn’t ours, but that of someone we love. It’s okay to name that for your team: “Someone close to me is going through something incredibly difficult right now and supporting them is taking up a lot of my energy and attention. I want to honor their privacy so I won’t share details.”

Sharing can be scary, but accepting help from your team can be scarier for some people. But let them help, so that you can spend your energy on those you love who need you right now. And then later, you can pay it forward.

More from Eric Karpinski and Becca Labbe Karpinski
More from Psychology Today