Having This Type of Conversation With Your Colleagues Will Boost Your Success

Certain talking points can help a team be more productive. Others, not so much.

 Tara Moore/Getty Images

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line between friendly and professional with your co-workers. A new study offers some clues.

The study, published in the academic journal Group & Organization Management, found that work teams were more successful when they shared professional details with their colleagues (like how they work best and whether they have a specialized degree), as opposed to personal ones (like their kids’ names or their favorite flavor of cake).

Researchers looked at more than 350 workers in 10 countries, who worked in “virtual” — rather than face-to-face — groups at a global IT company. (Teams were considered virtual even if they were in the same building, if most of their communication happened via technology… a setup that’s increasingly common.)

Subjects took web surveys about how individual team members performed at work, how well their teams performed collectively, and answered personal questions about, for example, whether they knew their colleagues’ favorite pastimes or details about their family lives.

The authors explained that professional familiarity is more important than personal familiarity. Co-author M. Travis Maynard, Ph.D., the chair and associate professor of the Management Department at Colorado State University, theorized that conversations that become too informal or social lead to “process losses,” or inefficiencies, because they slacken the pace of productivity.

“Think about a team that is made up of great friends,” he says. “It could be that instead of being focused sufficiently on the task, they are focused on their social activities like what they did this weekend.” Maynard explains that while it may seem counterintuitive that personal familiarity with your teammates doesn’t enhance work output, “professional familiarity is most beneficial for team effectiveness.” That’s because when colleagues know details about each other’s careers, they have a better sense of what they are capable of and what to expect from them when working together on projects.

That said, he speculates that as teams become more virtual, personal familiarity may provide team members with “the comfort necessary to better share information.”

So how can you find the sweet spot between personal and professional?

If you can, get to know your teammates face-to-face, Maynard suggests, and rather than focusing on talk about weekend activities or political beliefs, go deep with colleagues about how you each work best, what prevents each of you from reaching your potential, and what your strengths are and how you’ve demonstrated them.

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