Being Charming Isn’t Necessarily the Charm in the Workplace

The man who works above me at the health-trade publication I edit is charming—actually, I don’t find him charming, but most other people do. He knows obscure facts, is a wine and food connoisseur, and can recount many quaint stories of traveling dusty roads in small town America, where someone gifted him a bag of boiled peanuts. He’s a good conversationalist and can flit from clique to clique at a dinner party or cocktail hour like nobody’s business. And he’s often incompetent, arrogant, and almost always inefficient in his work.

Does that sound familiar? Fortunately, modern research is exposing how shallow the benefits of charm are. Dr. Carol Grannis, chief self-esteem officer for Self Esteem Brands, the parent company of Anytime Fitness and Waxing The City, conducted a research study on leadership vulnerability in the workplace and the power of self-disclosure. Marcel Schwantes, founder and chief human officer of Leadership from the Core, shared insights from Grannis’ research in Inc.:“Grannis concludes that successful leadership includes sharing your whole self, not just your strengths, but your weaknesses, too. Sharing your own perceived weaknesses may mean that you share an emotion, a mistake where you risk being vulnerable.”

That means, presumably, that the charismatic, yet arrogant, manager who is unable to admit when he doesn’t know something wins no points. The “charming” self-confidence he radiates becomes infuriating when a peer or employee is unable to have an honest conversation about a challenging project because the manager is too busy trying to appear knowledgeable and superior. 

Grannis stresses the importance of “self-disclosure,” and she means much more than disclosing stories from one’s travels or entertaining anecdotes from childhood. She appears to mean disclosing both strengths and weaknesses in the workplace: “When leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses and have confidence in themselves, they will be more comfortable in engaging in self-disclosure,” she notes. “Start with self-awareness, grow your emotional intelligence, and then act on self-disclosure.”

That emotional intelligence, I would assume, includes having the self-confidence and maturity to be able to forfeit the last word in a conversation. Many a time, I have gone back and forth with the “charming” manager at my company, with him refusing to stop e-mailing me until I stopped responding first. It also should mean having the confidence to praise and elevate junior employees based on work they do that the manager, himself, would not have been able to do, or do as well. 

While humble-brag storytelling that shores up a manager’s high opinion of himself is not helpful, Grannis sees value to storytelling that reveals a mistake from the manager’s past, and how he improved to do better: “Try storytelling a mistake, sharing personal information, being silly with your staff, and/or having one-on-one meetings to allow for a more naturally vulnerable conversation. When you plan the use and execution of storytelling, you’ll reap the advantages it has in building trust.”

Another tip Schwantes passes on from Grannis is the importance of showing emotion. The only time my charming peer showed emotion in my presence was when talking about his dying dog—not when talking to me about my dying mother. Schwantes notes that a leader who can be vulnerable—and self-confident enough—to show emotion will make great strides: “Showing your emotions is seen as weak and an intrusion on the business of work. But Grannis says displaying the full array of your human emotions allows others to feel more connected to your honesty, forgiveness, tolerance, and wisdom. Plain and simple, just be human.”

The sad part is, whether due to a character flaw or bad experiences, a manager who lacks the self-confidence to show vulnerability probably will never be capable of doing so. That’s not Schwantes’ or Grannis’ take on it, but my own. Years spent with insecure managers has taught me that sometimes the best thing to do is prepare those working under them for the ordeal. 

In the training of high potentials, offer a segment about the personalities—good and bad—they will confront in their climb up the ranks. One of the personality types reviewed should be that of the insecure manager. Teach coping strategies, including how to gracefully bow out of an anger-producing, unproductive conversation. It is that skill that has save me many a time from losing my temper as a manager woefully behind in his work and creating stress for those around him says by way of explanation, “That’s just the nature of it.”

Do you teach the value of vulnerable leadership at your company? How do you recruit and train managers who are capable of honest conversations with employees about their own strengths and weaknesses?

Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.