Taking your whole self to work is a well-known criterion for a great work experience, but it’s worth thinking about what this really means. Should you share every personal detail? How much is too much? How much is enough?
Research has found that workers are happier and satisfied with their work when they feel they can be themselves. In particular, a study by the University of Exeter found when people feel they have to conceal too many personal characteristics, they may have lower self-esteem, less job satisfaction, or reduced commitment at work. Further research, published in the journal “Cultural Diversity and Ethic Minority Psychology,” found when people must hide their true identity at work, they may have lower job satisfaction and be more likely to leave their employer.
But while it’s true that people need to be themselves at work, it’s also wise to consider how much you share and with whom. People don’t have to know everything about you, in order for you to feel known—you can feel respected and appreciated even if those around you don’t know your deepest secrets.
Allow the relationship to unfold
Relationships and trust are built over time, and in general, you can’t fast track trust. Research published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships demonstrates a meaningful depth of relationships occurs after about 60 hours invested together. When you have a relationship which has been built over time and is already strong—intimate details tend to strengthen it. But if you share too much, too soon, it can actually derail a relationship. This process, which researcher and podcaster Brené Brown dubs “floodlighting,” can be detrimental to a relationship which is just starting out. In essence, it’s better to let a dynamic blossom over time and avoid rushing the process.
Be patient and invest time during which you ferret out what’s best to share and at what pace. Overall, be selective about what you share, with whom, as well as when and where. Your filters protect you, but they also protect the nature of a relationship and the other person you are engaging with. You can always share more, but you can’t share less, so being choosy about what to divulge is a very good idea. As you navigate the delicate environment of sharing information with others, here are some criteria to consider.
Consider the relationship type
When you’re deciding whether to share with others, start with the nature of the relationship, and think in concentric circles. Those closest to you in your inner circle—such as close friends and family—will know the most about you, but as you expand out from your center, people may know less. This is completely okay. It’s natural for some relationships to be more superficial and all kinds of connections are associated with happiness—even those which have less depth.
If others have shared personal details, that’s a signal they may feel comfortable hearing more about you. Connections which involve trust are built slowly, and people tend to reveal one layer at a time, and then wait for others to reciprocate. As you build your own relationships, tune into this dynamic; try revealing a little then followed by a bit more. Realize you may not reveal everything to everyone, and appreciate a diversity of relationships with a variety of people with whom you share more—or less.
Think about the task at-hand
At work, you may not feel comfortable making intimate friendships, and it’s legitimate to have solid relationships at work with people who aren’t your besties. Remove the pressure to develop intimacy with work contacts.
Consider whether your share will help you at work and whether it is important to the success of the task. There are two kinds of trust, both task trust (or the act of trusting someone to follow up and follow through), and relationship trust (or the act of trusting someone with a secret).
To build a successful connection, discern between how you’re building each of these. For example, when the team asks you to take the lead on the project management for the new initiative, you may share that you’re just developing your skills on the necessary software, but you wouldn’t need to share your political views on the way the latest election was managed.
Also consider whether your intended share is important to the success of the work relationship. For example, if the team is going out socially after the customer meeting, you may feel comfortable letting them know you’re committed to your yoga class instead, but you don’t need to divulge that you’re rebuilding a teetering relationship with one of your classmates. Therefore, the amount of detail you share can be key. Sharing some things may communicate you’re open and accessible, but getting into deep details may not be necessary.
Consider the status of your career
As you’re deciding how much and with whom to share with, give thought to the impact of your openness. Everything you say will leave an impression, and people will remember even throw-away statements that you wouldn’t consider memorable in the moment. Consider whether the information you share will strength or weaken people’s perceptions of you, and make appropriate decisions. How you share, how much you share and with whom matter most.
For example, you may share with your coworker that you’re having a tough day, so she can offer support and encouragement; however, you wouldn’t be so forthcoming with your mood with your boss. Or you may share your career goals with your boss or your mentor, but you may not get into these details with your coworker.
In addition, give thought to whether you’d want the information you share to be repeated to others. Even when you have a great relationship with someone, they can repeat something, and they may not repeat it in the way you intended to express the information or they may take it out of context.
Consider if the details you wish to share may be awkward or odd coming from anyone else—it may be best to get ahead of any social risk and hold back details in case it results in an eventual strained dynamic.
Finally, think about what is “off limits”
In general, some things are usually (or always) better left unsaid in a work setting. Stay away from politics or baseless gossip. Some individuals also consider talking about money, relationship challenges, or health issues, off-the-table. In terms of level of appropriateness, these topics may be better for a non-work setting or among close friends.
In order to build healthy relationships at work within a strong culture, look for organizations where there is an overall foundation of respect and trust among colleagues. Be patient with relationships and know they are built slowly, over time—especially in a work context. Invest, commit and do your best work while you allow work relationships to blossom naturally.
And embrace all kinds of relationships, from the more superficial connections where you’re saying a quick hello to the more intimate friendships where you can share more openly, outside of the office. All of these kinds of relationships are meaningful and rewarding, and contribute to your sense of fulfillment.
Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.