Another Communication Boundary: How Far Can You Self-Disclose?

Organizational learning requires the ability — and willingness — among members to self-disclose. Senge and his colleagues use tools such as “Left-hand Column” and “Ladder of Inference” which require a member to be aware of, and to publicly describe, how one thinks. That includes many things: how one reasons out, what doubts and uncertainties one entertains, whether one agrees or disagrees and why, what one does not know or what is the extent of one’s ignorance, what facts or observations led to one’s conclusion, the meaning of a word or label one uses, etc. Below are two slides from a PowerPoint presentation on Senge’s “Five Disciplines” that I show my KM graduate class at the Technology Management Center, University of the Philippines, which lists things that members of a learning organization must be able and willing to talk publicly about.

mental models

systems thinking

Double-loop learning is more demanding: it requires self-disclosure that can bring about strong emotional content: personal likes and dislikes behind a behavior or pattern of behavior, personal fears and desires that affect work performance, tacit patterns of inefficient or ineffective behavior one is unwilling to talk about, etc. The strong emotional content itself can inhibit self-disclosure.

How far one is willing to be candid and public about his own thinking and feeling processes — which are normally private or personal things — is another form of communication boundary. This “self-disclosure boundary” delimits what one is willing or comfortable to tell others; just as the “communication boundary” we discussed in the previous blog post (“Announce Your Communication Boundaries”) delimits what one is willing or comfortable hearing from others. In both cases, discomfort is the signal that tells one that his boundary is being breached. These boundaries vary from person to person, and from context to context, but watching at what point the discomfort begins is a useful way to be aware exactly where one’s boundary is.

Browse through the profiles of your contacts in Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, or other similar social networks. You will notice the differences in the willingness to self-disclose. In fact people who are “very private” will not even join such social networks. You must be a “social person” or one who is less guarded about your “private space” or “personal life” to join and enjoy participating in them.

In the plane ride from Beijing to Manila last Tuesday, I sat next to a young man who visited his Chinese girlfriend. Wow! He disclosed to me — a stranger — much more than what I expected about him, his girlfriend and what they did in the two weeks he was in Beijing. He showed me their pictures in his laptop. He is a body-piercer. He told me so much about how he does it to minimize the pain in his clients. He described where (=what parts of the body) and which way he had pierced his lady clients as well as gentlemen clients, etc. He showed me the piercings in his face, mouth and head (he had temporarily removed the rings in them).

Willingness to self-disclose is not enough. Some may be willing to self-disclose more than others, and a few may be like my plane seatmate. Most people assume that they know everything about themselves — why they think, feel and do what they keep thinking, feeling or doing or NOT thinking, feeling or doing. This is a wrong assumption. Most people are actually unaware about much of their internal states. For example, most people are unaware of their “blind spots” or “blindfolds”. A willingness to self-disclose is not enough; self-disclosure to be productive of learning must be accompanied by self-knowledge that comes from years of constant practice of double-loop learning and “conscious living”.

Chris Argyris, who introduced double-loop learning, said: “Leaders and subordinates alike… must all begin struggling with a new level of self-awareness, candor and responsibility.”

In the February 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Bill George and his associates wrote about learning how to be an inspiring and empowering leader. They asked 75 members of the Advisory Council of the Stanford Graduate School of Business what is the most important capability that leaders must develop. Their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness!

I believe that extending the envelope of organizational performance can be achieved through three steps:

  1. The first envelope is through better technology: this is the easiest.
  2. The second envelope is through better management: this is not difficult as there are numerous management tools for this purpose.
  3. The third envelope is through better psychological-behavioral technology: this is difficult because the tools in this area are still works in progress.

According to Management Today, “Peter Senge’s advocacy of the learning organization helped begin a revolution in the workplace. And, the relevance of Senge’s work is growing rather than diminishing over time. As more businesses go global, the need to overcome psychological barriers to necessary organizational change increases.”

Peter_Senge

PETER SENGE

Note that there are embedded links in this blog post. They show up as colored text. While pressing “Ctrl” click on any link to create a new tab to reach the webpages pointed to. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the use of the last image in this blog post.

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4 Responses to “Another Communication Boundary: How Far Can You Self-Disclose?”

  1. ZideniHef Says:

    Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
    And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! 🙂

  2. apintalisayon Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Nardy.

  3. Carolyn Cronin Says:

    Great articles. Very clear and to the point.

  4. L26 -Bohm’s Dream: a Revolution in How We Communicate « Apin Talisayon’s Weblog Says:

    […] Transparency was lacking from one or both sides? […]

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