Why You Should Be More Open About Your Personal Life at Work

People who report having friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction.

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When you’re asked “How was your weekend?” by a co-worker on a Monday morning, how do you respond? What about when a colleague asks what you’re doing after work?

If you keep your personal life separate from your professional life, then you’re not alone. I hear it all the time in my executive coaching sessions with founders and organizational leaders.

Yet according to a Gallup study of more than 15 million employees all over the world, people who have a “best friend at work” are not only more likely to be happier and healthier, they are also seven times as likely to be engaged in their job. What’s more, employees who report having friends at work have higher levels of productivity, retention, and job satisfaction than those who don’t.

In a different study of 168 employees of an insurance company in the southeastern United States, researchers found that having workplace friendships significantly increased an employees’ performance, as judged by their supervisor. Further, employees with close friends at work reported being in a good mood more often, which could have positive effects on the work being performed.  

Decades of psychological research also shows that belonging is a fundamental human need. Given that we spend between eight and nine hours of our day at work (whether remotely or at the office), we have significantly less time to fulfill our social needs outside of work. The workplace, where we spend such a large portion of our time, is an ideal place to foster the positive social connections we all need—not just for our wellbeing but also for our productivity and health.

Social connection is even more important in today’s COVID-19 remote workplace. Without it, employees can feel “out of sight, out of mind,” which can lead to feeling unimportant, forgotten, not valuable, non-essential, and afraid of losing their jobs.

However, talking about your personal life with colleagues can be tricky. Where are the boundaries? Are there some topics that are off limits? And when do workplace friendships become inappropriate?

There’s a lot of nuance and complexity to navigate. Personal questions like “Where do you live?” or “How do you get to work?” could reveal information about socioeconomic status that could lead to judgement and unconscious bias, while questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have plans after work” could reveal information about sexual identity that may not be out in the open.

Some people are naturally more private than others, so you shouldn’t feel pressured to talk about anything you’re not comfortable sharing. If you don’t want to answer personal questions, however, then I recommend responding generally instead of outright rejecting the question. You have a right not to answer, but there’s a better way not to answer than, “It’s none of your business,” which can create feelings of rejection. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intentions.

With that said, in my work with leaders and organizations, I’ve seen that people who don’t talk about their personal life risk not being fully trusted by their colleagues. In a blog post for The Gottman Institute, I shared a story about a client who had internalized the message that one’s personal life and work life should be kept completely separate. He worked very hard to not bring any aspect of his personal life into the office.

Although well intentioned, he was inadvertently creating a persona of secrecy. This resulted in his colleagues not trusting him fully, and impacted the morale around him. By opening up with others, he began to build trust with his peers, and he made partner in his firm as a result.

So should you keep your personal life completely private at work? It’s ultimately up to you, but completely shutting off any information about the personal part of yourself could negatively impact your relationships at work. Figuring out the balance of appropriate self disclosure that maintains professional boundaries is an art that is important to master. Rule of thumb is to avoid information that could potentially embarrass you or anyone else. Your comfort level may be way to the right or to the left, so remember to consider the spectrum of reactions to your information.

Professionally-appropriate information sharing about our personal lives can humanize us to one another, which increases more meaningful interpersonal relationships at work. Isn’t that what we all want in the end?

This article was originally published on the Founders Foundry.

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