Getting personal in the workplace

Last week over lunch a friend was telling me about her struggle with depression. She had decided to share it with her team and manager at work, and questioned whether that was the right decision. I told her that I always appreciated it when colleagues shared about themselves. It increased the respect I had for them.

That was the partial truth.

The whole truth is that I’ve struggled with that question myself in the past – how much to share at work? I have hidden physical health challenges and passed on opportunities to share my interests in meditation or surfing, fearing that I would be judged (well, that meditation practice clearly isn’t working…surf’s up, dude!).  I’ve shared personal goals, only to feel like I faced retribution afterwards for thinking too big or not being aligned with my manager or organization.

Despite this, I have kept pushing the boundaries over the years on what I share with managers and colleagues. The reasons:

1) I’ve seen first-hand how transparency strengthens relationships, improves alignment, generates better solutions, and makes individuals less stressed and more productive. Those benefits are generated by increased openness between employees and with an organization’s policies, since the two often go hand-in-hand.

2) I’ve seen how transparency makes organizations more innovative. That’s why progressive companies keep pushing perceived limits in this area too, whether its Whole Foods publishing every employees’ salary or Google  letting every engineer have the code of every other engineer the day they start. These pioneers know that being open makes their organizations smarter, faster and more successful, and want to take it to the policy level.

3) Far more often than not, I’m (happily) surprised with the results when I practice it in difficult situations. Maybe I’ve learned a thing or two about time and place – and there is such a thing as too much information (in and out of the workplace). More than that though, I’ve realized that what many people think is “too much,” is often far below the TMI threshold – at least in organizations where I would want to work.

4) That brings me to my last reason – transparency is a good test for whether you are in the right organization or working for the right person. Looking back at those times when I questioned afterwards whether sharing was worth it, I’ve seen that it was really the position, organization or person that wasn’t worth it.

It can still be tough telling the truth when you are face-to-face with the person who handles your paycheck. Many managers are unaware of the dissolving barriers between work and personal life, and the openness that employees and consumers are increasingly demanding. They may be influenced too by the company’s top executives, many of whom still fear that transparency will make them seem less authoritative or credible.

The truth is that employees really want to connect with their leaders, largely by knowing they have gone through similar problems and hardships. As Forbes says: “We are all living during a time when people want and expect their leaders to be more human, less perfect and at times a bit vulnerable – regardless of hierarchy and rank.”

I recently announced at work that I was taking time off to go on a meditation retreat. As I saw again from the positive reaction, many leaders want to connect with their employees too.