The Strength of Vulnerability: Surprising New Insights into Building Strong Mentoring Relationships

By Jean Rhodes

In a year in which words like ‘AI’ and ‘hallucinate’ dominated the public discourse, Merriam-Webster’s 2023 word of the year ‘authentic’  really resonated. This choice underscored both the enduring importance of genuine human connection and the value of authenticity in mentoring. In a recent study of helping relationships, perceived therapist genuineness was found to be the single most important predictor of the therapeutic alliance, and authenticity has been identified by researchers as an important component of strong mentoring (e.g., Deutsch, & Spencer, 2009). More generally, recent research overviews (e.g., Cha et al., 2019; Lehman et al., 2019; and Sedikides et al., 2019) have highlighted its importance in all human relationships and its links to numerous positive outcomes. This raises an intriguing question– What fosters perceptions of authenticity?

New Research

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Jiang et al., 2022) has some answers. In particular, it focuses on the value of showing weakness. This isn’t always easy. Because mentors want to be good role models and to instill confidence in their mentees, they may be hesitant to share unfavorable information about themselves. But this unwillingness may actually lead their mentees to perceive them as inauthentic. Mentees want their mentors to “be real” and when mentors only reveal their desirable features, they risk coming across as trying to impress and being insincere.

When a person engages in what Jiang et al. describe as “sensitive self-disclosure,” in the form of revealing vulnerability and weaknesses, their mentees may perceive them as presenting themselves “in a more complete, comprehensive, or unbiased way. As a result, we argue, observers perceive that actor as authentic. In making this proposition, we draw on seminal work in sociology on “staged authenticity”—the notion that access to “back regions” can enhance the intimacy, and perceived authenticity, of an experience (MacCannell, 1973)—as when, for example, a diner enters the kitchen area of a restaurant. Here, we posit that in interpersonal interactions, voluntarily allowing a person into one’s “backstage” by revealing something sensitive, can foster perceptions of authenticity.”  They also argue that sensitive self-disclosures can shift our perceptions of motivations. So, whereas a salesperson’s flattery may feel strategic and inauthentic, when a person has nothing to gain from disclosing vulnerability, they are seen as more authentic. In addition to conveying authenticity, sensitive self-disclosure also leads to liking. It helps to build rapport and can convey warmth and competence, reduce envy, enhance the mentors’ ability to be persuasive, and increase mentee motivation to work on goals.


To test these ideas, the researchers conducted a series of experiments. In the control conditions, managers described themselves and their careers in strictly positively terms. In the experimental condition, managers added sentences like, “Even if I am a manager of a multibillion company, I am not good at public speaking. When I make a speech, my mouth gets dry and I sometimes start to panic,” or ““I’m quite shy. I am nervous about public speaking, and I have a habit of cracking my knuckles.” In one experiment, the researchers even gave managers prompts to reflect on things they could disclose.

  • Do you sometimes procrastinate? If so, you could say something like “I sometimes procrastinate and do things last minutes.”
  • Do you sometimes let your personal life interfere with your performance? If so, you could say something like “I have to admit that sometimes my personal life interferes with my job.”
  • Do you sometimes arrive late? If so, you could say some- thing like “I am only human : : : occasionally I start work a little late.”

Results: By a wide margin, managers who described vulnerabilities were perceived as more desirable bosses and more authentic people. Their disclosures did not compromise others’ perceptions of competence and, interestingly, this vulnerability effect was particularly noteworthy for women managers.

Bottom Line: Although mentors may not instinctively recognize the advantage, revealing weaknesses (within appropriate developmental and professional limits) can convey authenticity that leads to better relationships and outcomes.

Original Study Jiang et al., (2022). Fostering Perceptions of Authenticity via Sensitive Self-Disclosure Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 28, No. 4, 898–915