Should I share my personal life at work? This is about boundaries and navigating your professional identity. Andrea shares 3 real risks to sharing your personal life at work, then 3 levels of benefits. The balance between sharing personal information and maintaining professional boundaries is delicate and can significantly affect workplace culture, individual well-being, and even your own career trajectory.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Whenever this topic of sharing your personal life at work comes up, I always think of this experience I had about 10 years ago. I was serving as an advisor for a small private firm. I respected the CEO very much. He sent an e-mail out to all of the advisors asking us to submit to him our corporate bios for the website. At the bottom of his email request, he said something like, “Please make sure you include some personal details at the end. We all know that people tend to like us better when we add some personal details to the bottom of our professional bio.”

I remember thinking:  Is that true?  Seems possible. I want to see the research!

I get this Q a lot in the workshops and coaching I do.  Men and women both ask me about this. Should we talk about our hobbies? Should I mention that I run ultra marathons?? Should I mention that I do stand up comedy on the weekends? Or that I look after my partner’s elderly parents? Should I mention that I have a newborn at home?

In this episode, I’m going to share with you what the academic research says about specific reasons that we should or perhaps should not share our private or personal life at work.  The advantages and disadvantages, if you will. 

The answer to this question of “should we share our personal life at work?” does not have a simple yes or no answer. I would think of it more as a checklist or a series of considerations. My goal is to help you make informed decisions about whether and what to share about your personal life at work, depending on your PERSONAL context. Sound good?

Welcome to the Talk About Talk podcast episode number 153, sharing your personal life at work.  

In case we haven’t met, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Andrea Wojnicki and I’m your executive communication coach. Please call me Andrea!
I’m the founder of Talk About Talk, where I coach communication skills to ambitious executives like you – to elevate your communication, your confidence, and your clarity, so you can establish credibility, and accomplish your career goals.

If you go to the TalkAboutTalk.com website, you’ll find many resources to help you out. There’s information there about one-on-one coaching, online courses, some amazing bootcamps that I run every few months, corporate workshops, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast, AND, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter. That newsletter is your chance to get free communication coaching from me every week. 

Alright let’s get into this.

A few years ago, at the beginning of COVID, I was doing small group personal branding workshops for senior female executives around the world. One brave participant asked how to manage her personal brand at work, particularly in the context of sharing her personal life. She told us all about a recent experience in her new role as a partner in her male-dominated organization. She noticed immediately that the few times when she mentioned her children or family obligations, the room got quiet.  She got a strong signal that talk about your life outside of work was not welcome here.

This not uncommon. OK, that was a double negative. This is common. In fact, there’s a name for this. It’s called quote the motherhood penalty, unquote. Researcher Shelly Correll’s work demonstrates how women, in particular, can be disadvantaged by perceptions that their family responsibilities will interfere with work commitments.

Have you ever experienced, or maybe wondered whether you were experiencing the motherhood penalty??

I remember when I was in the job market in the last year of my doctoral program, looking for a job as a new faculty member.  I was interviewing at some amazing universities in The US, in Europe and in Canada.  I was married with a 1 year old at the time, and certainly hoping to have more children. I know a lot of women struggle with what to disclose in terms of their family situation. Should I talk about my baby? Never mind my plans to have more children? Should I even wear a ring?  This sounds crazy to me now, but I DID take my wedding ring off for a few interviews. I didn’t want to prime anyone to wonder about my motherhood status. But then I decided if being a mom was a bad thing at any of these universities, then I probably didn’t want to work there anyway. The ring went back on. Wow, I forgot about that whole experience.

More recently, I was coaching a woman who has two young children, who asked me whether and how she should tell prospective employers that she’s DONE having kids. That’s an interesting one!

 Then, just a few weeks ago, one of my friends, a successful tech entrepreneur, told me that decades ago, she went into a job interview very pregnant. I cannot imagine. She got the job, had the baby, and had a stellar career at that firm for over a decade.

That’s a happy story. But this isn’t always so easy, is it?

I suppose there are really two questions here, there is one general question about sharing your personal life at work across all dimensions. Talking about your own childhood, where and how you grew up, your hobbies, what you do on weekends, and yes, your family. And then secondly, there’s a question about discrimination against women, and particularly their roles as mothers and how that impacts their professional careers.

Understanding that the motherhood penalty is a real thing, and that it may compound any potential negative effects on sharing your personal life at work, I’m going to focus on the first Q.  We’re going to focus more generally in this episode, as I said, on the pros and cons or the advantages and disadvantages of sharing your personal self in professional contexts. At the end of this episode, I’m going to share with you a summary. Almost like a checklist for you to consider when you’re deciding whether and what to share about your personal life at work. So as always, you don’t need to take notes as you’re listening to this podcast. I do that for you! First of all, there’s the summary at the end, and secondly, if you want to read the checklist, you can always find it on the transcript on the Talk About Talk website.

OK – we’ve established that this is a very common question that people have – how much and what to share at work. But research also shows that it is an important, a critical question. Research shows that what we share about our personal identity can have at least as much impact on our professional reputation as our expertise and accomplishments at work. Let me say that again. What we share about ourselves personally can impact our professional reputation even more so than things that are more directly related to our professional identity. The balance between sharing personal information and maintaining professional boundaries is delicate and can affect workplace culture, individual well-being, and yes, our career trajectory.

Let me start by addressing this Q in the context of your personal brand.

For those of you who have listened to previous Talk about Talk episodes focused on personal branding, or maybe if you’ve been to one of my workshops, you know that when I say personal brand, I mean, I mean your whole, complete, authentic Self. Your personal brand includes ALL of the most important elements or traits that comprise you, the whole person.

When I’m working with executives to help them articulate their personal brands, we create what I call a personal branding template. In this template, we list their passions, their expertise, their values, their principles, their accomplishments. And so on.  At the bottom of the template, I encourage them to include 3-5 positive and unique parts of their personal identities. Their hobbies, family role, and so on. 

The big Q is:   Should we share these personal elements of our personal brand at work?  Should we share every single element in our personal branding template with others?

My answer might surprise you.

Should we share our whole selves at work?  

Absolutely not,  

In fact, We shouldn’t share our whole selves with anyone!  It would be overwhelming. If I shared everything with you about me, you’d think I was crazy.  Save everything for your epic biography!  OK, so what should we do?  We should FILTER what elements of our identity that we share.  The keyword here is FILTER.

To be clear: we are always the same person. But in different contexts and with different people, We should think about FILTERING what parts of our identity, our brand, what parts of our LIFE we want to share. 

This notion of consistent with what Irving Goffman, a famous Canadian born sociologist calls Impression management. Goffman was one of the most influential thinkers in this area of impression management, culminating in his work entitled,  “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.”  Goffman provided foundational insights into how we perform roles in various contexts, including, of course, at work. He talks about this concept of “front stage” and “back stage” as a way of thinking about how we manage our professional identities.  I call it filtering. When we’re at work, we might filter out some of our personal life and our personal roles. That doesn’t mean they’re completely eliminated from our entire being, and overtime, of course, we may share more of our personal lives an roles with our coworkers. But generally, we filter out our personal and present our professional traits at work. 

 And of course vice versa. In our personal life we don’t introduce ourselves typically in terms of our work title and the last work project that we completed. 

So I call it filtering, Goffman calls it front stage and backstage. 

Let me give you an example.

Last year I coached an impressive CEO on this personal brand. One of the many things that I love about coaching ambitious executives on their personal brand is that I get to know people very quickly. If you’re going to be successful at creating an articulating your brand, you have to be pretty open about sharing your passions and your expertise and really every part of your life. Anyway, at the beginning of our 3rd coaching session with this impressive CEO, he started by apologizing for how he dressed, saying he just came back from a run. I said, “oh you run  That hasn’t come up in our conversation.’  

“Yes,” he responded. “Actually, I run ultra marathons.”

“WHAT? Why hasn’t that come up in the context of your personal brand?”
“Oh, I didn’t think it was relevant.”

“Of course it’s relevant!  Its positive, it’s unique, it’s impressive, it demonstrates your energy and your discipline, should I go on?”

He laughed.  We ended up re-writing his LinkedIn headline to conclude with “avid runner”” and he imported a banner image to his LinkedIn profile that showed him at the starting line of a marathon that he ran.

So when this CEO ‘s at work and yes, on his LinkedIn profile, he leads with his leadership expertise and his credentials. These things are front stage. Backstage, he might mention his personal interests, including things like the fact that he’s an avid runner. He doesn’t lad with that. He filters that out, or at least makes it secondary.

This is just one of many many conversations I’ve had with clients who are apprehensive about whether and what parts of their personal life they should share in conversations at work, in their corporate bios, or on LinkedIn.

So I did some reading –

I went through the academic research on the risks and benefits of sharing your personal life at work. I created a list of us of 3 specific risks and 3 ways to think about the advantages of sharing personal life at work. I

Yes, of course 3.  Always 

The 3 Risks of Sharing your Personal life at work include:

  1. Privacy concerns,
  2. Reinforcement of stereotypes & biases, and
  3. Violating norms. 

Let me tell you what I mean by each of these.

1.PRIVACY CONCERNS

Obviously sharing personal details can expose you to privacy risks.

Consider what information you’re comfortable with people knowing. 

This could be about your demographics, your health – physical and mental, your family members, etc.  How much and what do you really want  people to know?

This reminds me of a recent experience. A few months ago I was hired by one of the big 5 audit forms to run a series of workshops in person. One of the senior partners stood at the front of the room to kick off the first session by introducing the program, and then introducing me.  She was obviously very well-regarded by the folks in the room, and I could tell she had a good sense of humour.  She made a joke, saying something like, “wow – this is nerve wracking.  I’m up here in the spotlight, formally introducing a COMMUNICATION COACH to all of you. Talk about anxiety! I’m sure I’m doing it all wrong.  

Once she formally  introduced me, I thanked her and said, Actually, I can think of something worse than introducing a communication coach. It’s BEING a communication coach and living with three critical teenagers who are watching you carefully, ready to pounce on any communication blunder you make.  Welcome to my world, Claire!”

Everyone in the room smiled and laughed. I realized that before I even started talking about the workshop material, they already knew I have three kids. Because of privacy concerns, I never share my kids’ names. Privacy concerns about our children, especially on social media is a topic that we could do a whole episode on. But the point is that whether you’re talking about your demographics (where you live, your age, your family, your socio economic status), also your health status – mentally and physically, and more – and it could be in person, in a workshop or on social media. These are all things that we need to be careful about in terms of privacy concerns. That’s the first risk.

The second risk to sharing personal information is that it can

2.REINFORCE STEROTYPES & BIASES

Here’s the thing. We’re all looking to for signals from others to interpret who we’re dealing with – including our coworkers. Sometimes the information we share can provide evidence that reinforces a negative stereotype.  

Like young mothers. The negative stereotypes include that they are sleep deprived and less loyal and less hardworking than others.  Ugh. 

Or like people who grew up a certain country. We sometimes assume they will have particular values or principles or even abilities. These are biased assumptions. 

This is an important point: As I said earlier, research shows that people may be more likely to form opinions about you based on personal aspects as opposed to your professional qualifications. 

Sometimes this is because of the biases that people may hold, even implicit biases, against some element of your personal background – something that’s not even directly related to your career.

Recently in one of my personal branding bootcamps, there was a female CEO who talked about this directly. This CEOs hobby was baking.  She loved baking and she loved giving her cookies and cakes to family, friends, and yes, co-workers. She told us that she was acutely aware of the bias against women in leadership positions, and how bringing cookies to her team at the office might just reinforce her identity as a woman – and maybe a woman who belongs in the kitchen.  YIKES. I have to give her kudos though. She was acutely aware and strategic about the stereotype.  She called it out as she was sharing the cookies. Like: don’t you dare discriminate against me, just because I’m conforming to the female stereotype of being in the kitchen.  Yes, I can bake a mean cookie.  But I’m also successfully leading this team to meet our KPIs!

I love it!

So that’s the second risk – potential bias.  We’ve  covered privacy concerns and potential bias.  The 3rd risk of sharing personal details is related to boundaries and relevance. It’s about

3.VIOLATING NORMS

This is really about conforming to or violating the norms at an institutional level – like the norms associated with your industry or your corporate culture, and also at a contextual level. 

Professor Kristie Rogers at Marquette University focuses her research on identity and professional boundaries at work.  Maintaining professional boundaries is crucial for workplace dynamics. Over-sharing or inappropriate sharing of personal information can blur these boundaries, leading to discomfort or conflicts within teams.  And even more so depending on the corporate culture.  Of course!  So there’s the norms of the corporate culture. Of the institution.

Then within that one institution, there are many different contexts.  Like if you’re selling something to a new prospective client, versus chatting with a familiar co-worker that you communicate with on a daily basis. Of course, the longer we know someone, the more we tend to share.

Here’s a context most of you are familiar with- LinkedIn
I remember posting something on LinkedIn years ago. The post was about something related to the art world. (Yes I’m also a painter. Did you know that?) Anyway, an old co-worker – a guy I knew years ago ,commented on the post that I should move it to Facebook. He publicly commented on my post, shaming me for sharing something that wasn’t directly career-related.  In other words, he believed I was violating norms. (By the way – you might be wondering what I did? I PRIVATELY messaged him and explain my rationale.  His response was belligerent. So I blocked him. ) Anyway, here’s a context where the norms are evolving. LinkedIn used to be almost exclusively about job searching.  Now it’s a professional network where people connect on all sorts of topics, including job searching, yes, but also industry thought leadership, mentorship, career progression, professional AND PESRONAL development, and yes, even personal interests. The NORMS of what’s acceptable to post on LinkedIn have evolved.

So those are the 3 reasons why you might NOT want to share personal information at work: privacy concerns, biases, and norms. Chances are, if you feel li9ke you messed up by sharing too much, it’s because of one of these three things: privacy issues, reinforcing negative biases, or violating norms.  

So what can we do when we do mess up?  Back to our filter metaphor.  We messed up and shared too much.  That’s when we need to MEND our filter.  We can adjust what and how much we share.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share anything personal at work!  In fact, there are several compelling reasons why we SHOULD share personal things at work.  

This idea of the blurred line between personal and professional boundaries is considered by several academic researchers including Kristie Rogers and Shelley Carroll whom I just mentioned, plus Laura Morgan Roberts. Nancy Rothbart and Ashley Martin, just to name a few. Generally, the research highlights that sharing some aspects of your personal identity or personal life at work can BENEFIT us on 3 levels: organizational performance, team cohesion, and individual well-being  So I categorized these benefits into three levels or reasons – there’s the macro or group level, there’s the 1:1 relationship level, and there’s the individual level.

Here’s the thing.  Particularly if you’re a leader, you can consider this both for yourself AND for your team.  This is important at both a cultural and an individual level.

Starting

1. at a macro level, 

  • We see that by sharing personal stories and experiences, individuals can challenge and reduce stereotypes in the workplace. Yes, this is related to the disadvantage I mentioned to sharing personal details – stereotypes and bias. Shelley Carrell’s research on gender stereotypes, for example, suggests that personal narratives can play a role in changing preconceived notions and biases. It can also improve job satisfaction and even sometimes reduce burnout for everyone in the organization
  • Research also indicates that knowing about our coworkers’ lives outside of work can foster empathy and support within teams. A supportive macro environment like this can also lead to reduced stress and increased job satisfaction.
  • When people are  comfortable being and sharing some of their personal life at work, they can be more authentic and true to their distinct identity. Despite the recent backlash against DEI, the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace are well-documented in academic literature. Sharing personal experiences can help highlight and celebrate diversity, contributing to a more inclusive culture.
  • This relates to Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, where individuals perceptions of the risks of being their true self impacts team performance.
  • Basically this point here is that when the individual feels comfortable being their whole and true self at work, the organization also benefits at a macro level. Makes sense. OK, let’s look at the second level, the relationship level.

2. at a 1:1 relationship level

Of course we’ve all noticed that OVER TIME, we share more personal details with our co-workers. And when someone shares something personal, we typically respond by doing that same thing.  This is supported by theories like the Social Penetration Theory, which highlights how over time, gradual self-disclosure helps deepen interpersonal relationships, often leading to improved workplace communication and relationships.

We probably don’t need to read the academic research to understand that when people reveal things about themselves, they’re signaling that they trust us and then we in turn reciprocate with trust. The social bond is elevated. Strengthened. Suddenly teamwork and collaboration are much more viable an effective.

You’ve probably also noticed overtime that we all look for similarities or things in common with others. Again, this applies for both professional interests, but also, and perhaps even to a greater extent, Personal insights. If you share a personal interest, a hobby, Or maybe you went to the same college or lived in the same city, as someone else. Shared interests and experiences create social bonds. When you share that you grew up on the east coast, or that you play golf, or that you enjoy baking or that you too have young children, you create a connection. 

So at a relationship level, you can think of two reasons why you might want to share personal information: Its (1)  to create an environment or relationship characterized by TRUST and (2.) to establish SIMILARITY or things in common.  It’s all about creating connection.

Now we’ve looked at the macro level and the relationship level. The third and last level to consider in terms of the benefits of sharing personal information is the 

3. Individual level.  This is about establishing your professional identity or your personal brand.

Sharing personal interests or achievements can reinforce that you are a well-rounded individual, and perhaps even highlight diverse skills that might be tangentially related to your career success.

A great example of this is the CEO client that I was talking about earlier in this episode, who was an avid runner, he ran ultra marathons. Clearly, this hobby isn’t directly related to his professional expertise. But it does share that he is well-rounded, disciplined and has a lot of energy.

At an individual level, sharing personal information can make you more relatable to your audience. It adds a human touch to your professional accomplishments, making you seem more approachable.
Personally, I might share things like how I workout most days at noon, online with a bunch of women – an amazing routine that we started at the beginning of covid.  Or how I love painting.  Or – here’s one.  I have three extremely tall children.  Depending on the context and the people or person with whom I’m communicating, these insights can make people feel closer to me or simply to signal that I am a real human with a real life. These personal insights are mostly backstage when I’m in my role as an executive communication coach.  But they’re still there, and I might decide to share them, depending on the context. 

Ask yourself:

Is there some outside interest that you pursue, that you might want to share? It doesn’t have to be over the top. It doesn’t have to be an extreme sport or something like running ultra marathons. Just something that showcases you as a well-rounded human. Maybe it’s artistic, Or maybe it’s athletic. Or maybe it’s your family. Unique hobbies, interests, or aspects of your background can make you more relatable and maybe even more memorable.

There you go – 3 risks and 3 levels of benefits of disclosing personal information at work.  Let me summarize and remind you what they are.  This is your checklist. 

The risks of sharing personal information at work include (1.) privacy concerns, (2.) reinforcement of negative stereotypes and bias, and (3.) violating norms.

The benefits are plenty, so I encourage you to consider them at 3 levels: (1.)At an institutional level, (2.) at a relationship level, and (3.) most obviously, at a personal level, in terms of reinforcing your POSITIVE and UNIQUE personal brand.

So now what do you do with all this?

My suggestion is that you carefully and strategically share elements of your personal identity in professional contexts.

Now then, here’s my challenge to you. Take some time to identify 3-5 elements of your personal life that you might share at work.  Consider carefully the risks (the privacy concerns, negative stereotypes & bias, and violating norms) along with the benefits (at an institutional level, at a 1:1 relationship level and at an individual level). And if you’re a leader, remember that you are role model and how you respond when others share personal information, never mind when and what personal information you yourself share, has a significant impact on your organization. 

Remember, we should certainly strive to be authentic. Always. We are our true selves.  But that doesn’t mean we are 100% transparent. We don’t share everything with everyone.  Goodness no!

Alright that’s it. 

If  you enjoyed this podcast episode, I do hope you WILL  SHARE IT with your friends and maybe even leave me a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. It really makes a difference and I appreciate it.

If you want to connect, I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to hear what you thought about this episode, and maybe ideas for future episodes. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or on the talkabouttalk.com website and send me a message. 

Thanks again for listening.  And talk soon!