How Much Personal Information Should You Share at Work?

A few weeks ago I coached a successful business woman who was struggling to understand why her staff didn’t trust or confide in her. One of the key pieces of feedback she received was that she was too impersonal.  Her staff complained (anonymously) that they felt like they didn’t really know her and that she didn’t take time to understand their personal lives outside of work. The implicit message was, “How can we trust you if we don’t really know who you are?”  The conversation I had with “Tina” (not her real name) got me thinking: How much is too much self-disclosure at work?

I’ve written in other posts about the pressure women feel to be “good girls.” Part of being a good girl is being likable and approachable so often women tend to share lots of personal information in order to gain trust and create a stronger connection with colleagues. The problem with this strategy though is over-familiarity can lead to poor boundary management making it hard to exert your authority and maintain the objectivity you need as a manager to make tough decisions.

At my current employer, a mid-sized international company headquartered in the Southeast, I’ve had to learn self-disclose more than I have in previous positions. I’ve also learned to take a more than passing interest in the personal lives of my colleagues. My organization has a very relationship-focused culture where consensus and buy-in are not just buzz words but are necessities when it comes to forging alliances and getting things done. If people don’t believe they know you, they are less likely to want to work with you; and if you are aloof and distant it is nearly impossible to be successful.

Contrast that with my previous two employers, large PR agencies in Chicago and New York. While my colleagues were certainly polite and friendly, the work environment was strictly business. Turnover in large PR agencies is typically very high and so we got used to people coming and going. I’ll never forget once when I wanted to introduce a new junior staffer to my practice’s General Manager. She shooed me away and said, “Don’t even tell me his name until he’s been here at least a year. I don’t want to get attached.” She wasn’t joking.

A quick story about when I started my job a few years ago. For the longest time I never kept any personal photos in my office. Any time one of my staff came to my office they’d comment on my lack of photographs and personal knick knacks. I had a couple of framed art photos on the wall but that was it. “Why don’t you have any family photos in your office?” was the constant refrain. Finally, I shared the situation with my boss at the time to get his perspective. Frankly, I was annoyed that this was becoming such an issue. He shared with me that my lack of personalizing my office was a sign of impermanence and that I may not be committed to staying. What? I was totally shocked but now knowing what I know now about my office culture, I get it. I now have a shrine small collection of photos of D2 in my office. And while I rarely socialize outside of work with colleagues (a common occurrence in my company) I do make it a point to get to know them on a personal level which has improved my work relationships.

I also recognize that a benefit of a highly relationship-focused culture is that staff genuinely care about each other. When my mother-in-law passed away very suddenly in January, I was overwhelmed and touched by the outpouring of support in the form of cards, e-mails, handwritten notes and phone calls. Most people knew how important my mother-in-law was in my life and that support carried me through some difficult months.

I find now that I have a child, I’m much more willing to share personal information. I still try to self-monitor and not talk too much about my personal life though because I think it’s critical to maintaining a professional work environment. I feel strongly that it’s also important for me to maintain some separation between work and home.

It’s a harsh reality that women have to walk the line between not seeming too cold and aloof yet while also not coming across as too friendly and soft. I’ve come to the conclusion that every corporate culture has it’s own threshold for what’s considered appropriate and what’s TMI. What about you? How much personal information do you share at work? Is it possible to over share and cross over into TMI? Thoughts?

  • Cynthia Benin Lemus

    I definitely think it’s a profession by profession case. As a teacher, our profession tends to bond outside of work because of the stress we are under. By going out for drinks, sports games, or lunch at a colleagues house, it’s a way for us to support one another even if we aren’t talking about the job (which is preferred). I used to shy away from such gatherings because fo my own schedule and that I perceived myself as too busy to attend, but discovered that the comaraderie my colleagues exhibited at work, was built outside of work. I know try to attend as many functions as I am able, even if it is just for an hour or so. Granted, this is a peer group, but I think letting your colleagues in your life shows that we are all human and have lives outside of work. Especially true when you go through hard times, as you have noted.

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