Seeing through the Johari Window

improving the quality of interpersonal communication

Communication and team effectiveness

General agreement exists about the fact that the success of a project is determined by the effectiveness of the team performing it. Hence the emphasis organizations put on team building, with the consequent assignment of project time and money to group development activities. But, although project budgets often include funds that are utilized for the organization of special events, like a dinner or an outdoor activity, project managers must recognize that most team learning processes actually happen during everyday project tasks.

If we define team building as a ‘planned and deliberate process of encouraging effective working relationships while diminishing difficulties or roadblocks that interfere with team's competence and resourcefulness’ (Ward, 2000), it becomes apparent that a fundamental role in the integration of the team is played by the quality of interpersonal communication.

This paper presents an approach to team building that is based on improving interpersonal communication processes between the members of the project team.

Seeing through the Johari Window

The approach is theoretically backed by a model of interpersonal communication processes, the Johari Window, firstly introduced in 1955 by Joe Luft and Harry Ingham.

This model postulates that a person's self is composed of several parts, which are represented by the four panes of a window (Exhibit 1). Through the four lights of the window we can look at the different part of our self.

The Johari Window

Exhibit 1. The Johari Window

• An open area of free activity, which we and others are aware of. This part includes all the information that the individual willingly and openly shares with other people through the diverse communication media: dress code, tone of voice, gestures, words, etc. Even if we feel often comfortable when moving in this area, we become especially aware of its importance only when we prepare ourselves for a situation that we deem important. I remember when, while was preparing myself for the delivery of a speech to an important professional conference, I was caught in the dilemma of deciding between wearing a jacket and a tie, to look like a serious business professional, or opting for a pair of slacks and a polo, to signal that I was comfortable with my ideas and the message I wanted to deliver (I chose the latter option).

• A hidden area, which contains the parts of us that we willingly conceal to others. This part hides all that kind of information that we don't feel comfortable to share with others. I'm still feeling uneasy at recalling my sense of inadequacy when I taught my first solo class on project management: I found myself alone in a Dutch training facility facing 17 IBM managers with whom I carefully avoided touching the topic of my teaching experience.

• A blind area, which we are not able to see but that is manifest to others. Sometime a problem or weakness can be seen only when looked at from outside; like it happened to me recently when a customer, with whom I've now become familiar, told me that during our first meeting he was negatively impressed by my quiet behaviour. I appreciated the criticism especially because my purpose for having stayed quiet in that meeting was that of giving to the client the opportunity of freely expressing his needs.

• An unknown area, which is undisclosed to each of us and to others. Leaving the issue of psychological defences out of our context, it is in this last quadrant that we can discover in our team members ‘hidden potentials, areas of knowledge, skill, and feeling that are latent because they have never been required or elicited’ (Schein, 128). Indeed this is a phenomenon I always experience during my teaching assignments, when a question or a comment from a participant put things in a perspective that I was not used to looking at: I suddenly gain a new insight that I can keep for myself (by moving it from the unknown to the hidden self) or, if appropriate, decide to share with the other attendees (by moving it to the open self).

Within the Johari Window model, interpersonal communication can be improved if the team members succeed in enlarging the area of open self: more information we share as a team more we'll be able to reach a common understanding.

Moreover, through the enriched material that additional information brings to the discussion, the team is faced with new opportunities for learning and discovery.

The role of self disclosure and feedback

Exhibit 2. The role of self disclosure and feedback

The enlargement of the free activity area (Exhibit 2) can be obtained through the process of facilitating self disclosure (i.e. revealing a part of the hidden self) in order to give and receive deliberate feedback (i.e. information related to the blind self).

The process is often accompanied by insight (i.e. discovery of information contained in the unknown self).

The larger the open self the more coherent and authentic is the behaviour of the individual, an essential quality for a successful project team because ‘authentic behaviour leads to higher trust, higher leverage, and higher client commitment. Authentic behaviour also has the advantage of being incredibly simple. It is to literally put into words what you are experiencing’ (Block, p.38).

Interpersonal communication in action

I was first introduced to the Johari Window during a train the trainer session for a class on leadership and communication. The instructor proposed us to use this framework as a way of explaining to the attendees why that class made large use of psychological surveys: because, through a better knowledge of themselves both as an individual and as a group, the attendees could better understand the pros and cons of working in a team. With this purpose in mind, I started to introduce the Johari Window model at the beginning of my leadership classes but, after some sessions, I realized that the framework was much more powerful than I initially thought. Why not use the approach to help the casually assembled group of people that were participating in my classes to become a team? The very fact that the participants' aims were that of learning how to build a team made the idea even more intriguing.

Being, myself, a strong believer in the doctrine that one can teach and lead only by being a coherent example of what is communicated, I assumed that my own behaviour in the class could provide an opportunity for exploiting the model and selling it to the participants.

A leadership class I taught for Motorola project managers in Madrid provided me the opportunity for experiencing the effectiveness of the Johari Window model.

Although I was used to teaching to multicultural audiences, this class looked like an experiment in social psychology: in the classroom I found 14 participants of 11 nationalities, coming from 4 continents. The only factor of aggregation within the group was that they shared of the same company culture.

As usual, I started the session by explaining the Johari Window model, but this time I asked the group, as an icebreaker, to fill two anonymous lists on two different sheets of paper:

1.   Things that they were willingly concealing to others;

2.   Things that they were noticing in others and they were pretty sure others were not aware of.

My objective was that of picking items from the two lists and of asking participants to notice similarities and differences between the two groups in order to better illustrate the characteristics of the model. But, maybe because the marked differences between the attendees leaded them to a high level of defensiveness, most of the items I picked up looked particularly fresh and ingenuous (e.g. I play music, I'm here with my family); as a consequence, I naturally started to produce examples of my own reasons for hiding similar apparently trivial information. The reaction was amazing: besides acknowledging my own examples, participants started to explain why they wrote the very sentences I had picked up and, after a short period of time, almost all the conceived items became public. Our group had never met until one hour before and we were already showing that kind of mutual understanding for our human weaknesses that is typical of the accomplished team.

Since than, I've repeated the exercise in many other classes; and I have always experienced the same positive effect on the cohesion of the team.

The self aware team

The classical model of team development elaborated by Tuckman (1977) describes team development as a process that necessarily progress through a mandatory sequence of stages: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.

For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate on the forming stage of team development. In fact, during this initial stage, individuals feel uncertainty about the objectives of the project and the role they can play within the team. This setting offers to the leader an opportunity for reducing team members' anxieties by setting the agenda and by providing the direction that is expected from him at this stage of team development. More than in any other phase of the project lifecycle, ‘effective project managers function as communications expediters in that they help to bring people together and initiate relationships which become communication links’ (Stuckenbruck & Marshall, 151).

Although the self disclosure and feedback process works and is beneficial for the whole life of the team, I found that it is during the forming stage of team development that is more productive to concentrate on the communication processes highlighted by the Johari Window. Indeed, if the leader succeeds in making the team members appreciate from the beginning the simplicity of the model proposed, group cohesion is quickly built.

In practice, I begin by explaining the model to the group and than, in order to illustrate the meaning of the different quadrants, I start to take the risk of sharing some information from my hidden self. The second (moderate) risk I take is that of pointing to some kind of blind information manifested by one of the member of the group with whom I feel more comfortable. For this purposes I target a person with whom I'm familiar or somebody that looks more extroverted, active or noisy.

From here onward the process becomes almost straightforward.

I initially ask for feedback on my own self disclosure and than I'm usually left only with the task of facilitating and directing the discussion towards the project goal.

In facilitating the process, it is important to be aware that, in situations in which the information content is highly influenced by emotions, most of the meaning we transmit, via self disclosure or feedback, is communicated through gestures, tone of voice, inflection and other non symbolic media (only 7% of the message is transmitted through words, according to the classical work of Mehrabian).

The self disclosure approach requires that the leader take the risk of initiating the process (i.e. she willingly decides to enlarge her open quadrant) in order to subsequently solicit feedback from the group about her blind quadrant.

The leader's behaviour encourages others to imitate and, consequently, it favours the enlargement of the team's open window: more and more ideas, experiences, values and beliefs become a common background that can be used to exploit the effectiveness of the team.

There are some similarities between the process described above and coaching (in Whitmore words: ‘Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them’).

Both approaches are based on the assumption that ‘the more aware a team is both individually and collectively, the better they will perform’ (Whitmore, 124), and central to both is the utilization of deliberate feedback to increase the team self awareness (i.e. the open area).

For the purposes of both approaches, ‘feedback can be thought of as information that informs us of our progress toward some goal that we are trying to achieve […] without accurate, focused, deliberate interpersonal feedback, our efforts to learn are reduced to pure trial and error' (Schein, 130-131).

There is though, in the way deliberate feedback is solicited, a fundamental difference between coaching and the self disclosure and feedback approach: while the coach tries to stay detached and to ask not judgemental questions, the use of self disclosure requires the facilitator's willingness to assume the risk of not being accepted.

The latter, possibly more demanding option, better suits the modern perspective that sees the project manager as an effective member of the team, the expert in organizing the project, opposed to the traditional view of the boss who is the only one capable of seeing the big picture.

In this perspective the leader is responsible for facilitating and supervising the process of self-disclosure and feedback.

Management of the self disclosure and feedback process

As everybody learns in kindergarten, providing feedback, no matter if unsolicited or if in response of a specific request, is a very risky activity: the reaction could damage the very relationship that we are trying to improve. I'm far from advocating that in an ideal word the whole of our self should be disclosed to others; most of our social relationships are based on conventions that require people to save their own individual face and that of the others. In order to use deliberate feedback in an effective, learning oriented, way, ‘goals must be clear and agreed to, the emphasis should be on description and appreciation, the feedback should be as concrete and specific as possible, both giver and receiver must have constructive motives, criticism should not be avoided if it is specific and focused on behaviour, the giver should own his own feelings and reactions rather than resorting to impersonal generalities, and both giver and receiver should be psychologically ready for a feedback discussion’ (Schein, 140-141).

In practice, to reduce the risk of negative reaction, I've developed my own structured approach that can be summarized in the following steps:

  1. Prepare the team by making its members aware of the process, through the explanation of the interpersonal communication model;
  2. Post a picture of the Johari Window well in sight over a wall of the room where the team is going to work together;
  3. Reach agreement about the value of providing and receiving feedback;
  4. When some crucial feedback is provided, often unexpectedly, restate it as it was given or in a more appropriate fashion when, from a psychological perspective, it is negatively biased;
  5. Refer to the chart on the wall and describe how the new insight just experienced could be described in the terms of the processes illustrated by the Johari Window.

It's important to notice how a considerable amount of time, even days or weeks, can separate step 4 from step 3. To be able to recognize that self disclosure and feedback are in action, the project leader needs to invest time in the development of his listening skills and of a process oriented attitude.

The Johari Window is a simple but powerful model of interpersonal communication. As for all models, its value resides mainly in its capability to provide a framework that we can use for reflecting on the experiences that built up our identity and our knowledge.

Once one experiences how easy is to enlarge the area of common understanding and self awareness of the team, simply by taking some moderate risk of disclosing parts of the hidden self and of facilitating feedback, this behaviour quickly becomes an habit.


Block, P. (1999). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used – 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.

Mehrabian, A. (1968). Communication without words. Psychology Today (September). 53-55.

Schein, E. H. (1999). Process consultation revisited: building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Stuckenbruck, L. C. & Marshall, D. (1996). Team building for project managers. In Adams, John R. Principles of project Management. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Tuckman, B. W. and Jensen, M. C. (1977). Stages of Small Group Development Revisited', Group and Organizational Studies 2. 419-427.

Ward, L. J. (2000). Project management terms: a working glossary – 2nd ed. Arlington, VA: ESI International.

Whitmore, J.. (1996) Coaching for performance – 2nd ed. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey.



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