Tuesday, 05 March 2019
‘Authenticity’ is the leadership quality you’re told to strive for – and in doing so you may find yourself sharing personal anecdotes, beliefs and opinions with those you work with. But how much of yourself is it wise to put out there, and can revealing too much backfire?
OVER-SHARING IS COMMON
“I was beset for months by a co-worker who wanted to talk about his family problems and dating issues and experiments with new yoga styles. I tried to discourage him by moving desks and donned headphones if he popped up. I made a big display of taking them out. Over time, we negotiated an understanding that he wouldn't interrupt so much. He needed a best friend or a companion, which ultimately he got when he began dating someone outside the office.”
Amelia Blanquera, New York attorney
Adapted from The Wall Street Journal
More than three in five people have at least one colleague who reveals too much about their personal lives. If you’ve ever found yourself in the position of the over-sharer, think back to what was going on around that time: were you particularly vulnerable and in need of connection? Were you new to a business and unsure of the culture? Did you misjudge a relationship? Take stock of these experiences and before you reveal anything you might come to regret, check in with your current mood to see what might be going on. Remember that over-sharing doesn’t just impact the view others have of you professionally, it can also impact them directly; many find their work disrupted as a result. As the leader of your business and face of your brand, it’s even more important to find a balance between connecting with your team and revealing so much that your air of authority is compromised.
OVER-SHARING APPLIES TO WORK RELATED OPINIONS TOO
Revealing too much doesn’t just apply to your personal life; as a founder you will be privy to certain facts or have a strong opinions about an aspect of your business. Think carefully, before you blurt it out, about who might overhear, how your audience could perceive your comments based on what they know or don’t know about you, and what the consequences of that might be.
Consider the case of Anne, the general manager of a cafeteria for an international technology company, as documented in the Harvard Business Review:
“An extrovert who knows herself well, [Anne] shares her experiences and perceptions freely. This can be effective when she’s talking to her staff, but it’s less so with outsiders. For example, when an HR manager recently complimented her on the catering she’d coordinated for an in-house awards ceremony, Anne disclose[d] that she’d been concerned because the company had come close to outsourcing its food service. Instead of seizing an opportunity to secure more internal business for her beleaguered cafeteria, she diminished her status and worried team members who overheard the exchange.”
HOW TO AVOID A WORKPLACE CULTURE THAT THRIVES ON OVER-SHARING
The ‘Ask A Manager’ website is awash with letters from employees desperately unhappy at being forced to participate in cultural over-sharing. There’s the woman in her 40s who doesn’t want to take part in organised weekly ‘private life show and tells’ whereby the rest of the team (mostly in their 20s) take turns at speaking for ten minutes about something personal. There’s another from some who doesn’t want to contribute their childhood pictures to the ‘When I was five’ staff photo wall in their organisation’s reception area. There’s even one from a woman unhappy that the boss of her family-run company is offering each employee life coaching session in which they’re encouraged to divulge a personal life goal he can provide support with.
Dilemmas such as these call for a balance to be struck between being seen as ‘non-participatory’ or ‘not a team player’ and feeling comfortable with what you choose to share at work As a leader it’s important to find ways to encourage you team to share minor details about themselves that doesn’t undermine their absolute right to privacy.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS THE KEY TO STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Revealing something of your private self calls for a great deal of self-knowledge, the ability to read others and accurately assess situations. It also demands complete honesty – people can see straight through fabrications or embellishments. And it’s wise to consider why you’re sharing. Are you telling a story about what it was like disciplining your toddler because it is a perfect analogy for a current workplace dilemma? Because a team member you like and trust is struggling with her own motherhood challenges? Or simply because you’re tired from a weekend with the kids and you want to blow off steam? Bear in mind that the context you’re acting within can elicit very different reactions and perceptions of you.
What ties each of these facets together is your emotional intelligence. Do you understand yourself and your motivations? Can you learn from your own mistakes? Are you a good judge of character? Are you a good listener? Can you relate well to others and speak in a way that enables others to relate well to you in response?
RECOVERING FROM AN OVER-SHARE SITUATION
“Intimate stories strengthen relationships; they don’t establish them.”
From Be Yourself, But Carefully
Harvard Business Review, 2013
Even the most private individuals and those who have emotional intelligence in bucket-loads can sometimes slip up and reveal something they come to regret. Consider the case of on one of our Network members, a bipolar sufferer, who shared this with us through our anonymous column everywomanIncognito.
“One day a colleague approached me. She knew that I had some knowledge of mental health and wanted advice on dealing with someone in her life who was struggling with a serious mental health problem. Over coffee she worried that her friend was never going to have a normal life. Hoping to give her confidence in the situation, I told her about my [well-managed] illness. My decision to open up was one that would have huge repercussions. The colleague who’d sought my advice disclosed my condition to the board, whose members decided that as manager of their biggest account, I was ‘too much of a risk’ to the business [and I was fired].”
And there’s Helen, owner of a home healthcare agency who revealed too much when asked to introduce herself at an external meeting, as told in the Harvard Business Review.
“Exhausted after a sleepless night with her sick baby, she shared that experience in her introduction, to the discomfort of her audience. ‘They wanted to know about my education and industry background, and instead I spoke graphically about baby throw-up,’ she recalls. ‘It took me a few months after that to re-establish credibility.’”
The authors of the above article have the following advice:
“[You don’t] have to wait years before telling colleagues anything about your personal life. You just need to have spent enough time with them to develop a foundation of trust and to learn organisational norms. First develop common objectives, delineate goals and roles, and demonstrate credibility and trustworthiness through your work. Take careful note of how open others are before offering significant disclosures of your own. In some workplaces you will eventually find it safe and helpful to share; in others you’ll realise it’s extremely unwise to do so.”