Over the past two years, the line between work life and home life has blurred, but talking about your personal troubles with your coworkers might feel like going too far. However, research by Susan Cain, author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, finds that it can have many benefits, including stronger connections with coworkers and productivity.
In her book, Cain shares an example of a company that normalized sharing personal woes. Midwest Billing, the billing unit of a community hospital in Jackson, Michigan, created a culture in which it was assumed that every worker had personal troubles. Instead of being seen as a flaw, sharing troubles provided opportunities for teammates to demonstrate compassion. Employees cared for each other during divorces, domestic violence, deaths in the family, and even when someone had a cold.
In addition to being good for mental health, sharing troubles was a boost for business. “During the five years prior to the study, Midwest Billing got its bills collected more than twice as fast as before, beating industry standards. Turnover rate in the unit was only 2%, compared with an average of 25% across all of Midwest Health System, and a significantly higher rate across the medical billing industry,” writes Cain.
The Role of Leaders
Creating a culture of sharing often starts with leadership. In her book, Cain shares the story of Rick Fox, former leader of a Shell Oil rig case in the Gulf of Mexico. Fox hired consultant Lara Nuer, co-founder of Learning as Leadership, to help solve problems with drill schedules and numbers of oil production. After talking with Fox, Nuer told him that his real problem was fear. The work was dangerous, as was managing people and keeping them safe.
Nuer worked with the team, encouraging them to talk to each other and open up about their own fears, including personal troubles. The culture transformed from a macho environment in which you would never share weaknesses or ask questions to one where the men supported each other.
“There were fewer accidents because the guys on the rig got more comfortable opening up when they didn’t know how to do something or didn’t understand how something worked,” says Cain.
If you’re a leader, however, sharing your own troubles can get tricky, says Cain. “At least one study suggests that confiding one’s troubles in subordinates can cause them to lose confidence in and comfort with you,” she says. “At the same time, the best way to shift a culture is for leadership to go first.”
Leaders don’t need to share all their troubles. “They don’t need to speak to their employees the same way they’d talk to their therapist,” says Cain. “It’s enough to move in the direction of open heartedness.”
How to Share
Instead of putting your personal life on blast, Cain says there are ways to do it correctly. For example, you can confide in a colleague quietly, one-on-one, she says. Or you might call a moment with your team, such as a project manager at Google who called his team together to reveal that he was fighting Stage 4 cancer.
“I also like the idea of creating spaces where people can share anonymously. So that, as a group, you get a sense of what your colleagues are dealing with, without people feeling too emotionally out there,” says Cain.
If you’re on the receiving end, Cain suggests receiving the information with 100% warmth and 0% judgment. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, says humans have “the compassionate instinct” that makes us wired to respond to each other’s troubles with care. Our nervous systems react similarly to our own pain as well as the pain of others.
“As we know from [Harvard Business School professor] Amy Edmonson’s work on psychological safety, people work best in an atmosphere of trust, an environment in which they can say something wrong and feel that others have their back,” says Cain. “But psychological safety extends to the feeling of being able to be a less than ideal human—and we are all less than ideal humans.”