It’s a fine line to walk: Share too little about yourself at work and your coworkers see you as cold and unapproachable. You might find yourself isolated and unhappy, which means you likely aren’t doing your best work. Share too many personal challenges and you might make them uncomfortable.
Here’s one more complicating factor: Oversharing might disadvantage you in the long run, too. And you might not know you’re doing it.
New research on workplace dynamics suggests the careers of higher status employees, including “star” employees who have leadership ambitions, can be hurt by sharing something personal that could be perceived as a weakness, like a medical or mental health diagnosis.
While the instinct for many is to share these vulnerabilities with coworkers, especially if you’ve worked together for a long time, you might inadvertently be shooting yourself in the foot by doing it.
Often, leaders in a workplace seek to humanize themselves to other employees, maybe sharing a coffee or a joke or even something personal. But a series of experiments conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed that a higher-status employee sharing a “weakness,” defined as personal information that likely carries a negative connotation—with another employee has the potential to harm that relationship.
The findings “highlight an irony of self-disclosure: although higher status individuals may disclose information about their weaknesses to a coworker in order to reduce the social distance between them and foster a better working relationship, their disclosure may have exactly the opposite effect,” researchers Dana Harari, Kerry Gibson and Jennifer Carson Marr wrote in their paper.
In the experiments, sharing a weakness lead to decreased influence in the eyes of the person who received the information. That person tended to lose interest in having a future relationship with them because of the exchange. They perceived more conflict with the sharer, too.
It seems that sharing a vulnerability to make yourself more likable may very well backfire on you.
So why do we keep doing it anyway?
It’s possible you don’t think what you’re sharing could be perceived as a weakness, especially if you know and trust your coworkers. Or you could be sharing it with them in a non-work space, like a happy hour or even indirectly on social media, where your guard is lowered and different rules apply.
“However, many individuals will intentionally self-disclose weakness to coworkers because they want to share it,” the research team wrote. “They may share it strategically because they believe it will help them affiliate with or indirectly influence the receiver by eliciting sympathy or concern. They may also self-disclose weakness because they want their coworkers to know them ‘as they really are.’ ”
And what’s so wrong with that? While keeping your vulnerabilities to yourself might be better for your career, it might not be better for you.
Some workers of older generations bemoan millennials’ willingness to “overshare,” but, for some people, it beats the alternative—feeling pressure to hide a serious health issue or mental illness from people you spend 40 hours a week with can be utterly exhausting.
“When individuals self-disclose weakness to a coworker, they liberate the cognitive resources they would otherwise expend trying to conceal that information, and are likely to experience a sense of relief and renewed energy,” the researchers wrote. “This can translate into greater job satisfaction and even job performance.”
A recent survey by human resources training company Developing People Globally revealed that 85 percent of workers in the U.K. think there’s still a stigma attached to issues of stress and mental health in the workplace.
That’s related to these stats: 26 percent of employees had taken a day off work for mental health reasons but had lied about why. Nearly 60 percent said they wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing a mental illness diagnosis to a boss.
There’s a growing number of professionals who want to destigmatize the topic of mental health in the workplace. After all, many people’s mental illnesses flare up under workplace pressures. Last year, a CEO’s response to an employee’s announcement that she was taking mental health time away from work went viral when he told her “you are an example to all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
“There’s this misconception that you can leave part of yourself home when you go to work,” the CEO, Ben Congleton, said to CNN. “(But) some personal stuff is gonna hang in there and hold on.”
The 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey by the American Psychological Association reported that 18 percent of workers felt mental health struggles had made work harder to handle in the past month. Fifteen percent said mental health issues kept them from meeting their goals at work.
With work and mental health so inextricably linked for many, and with mental health becoming more and more talked about in public spheres, it’s no wonder it’s a topic that’s coming up in the workplace.
Maybe the answer isn’t for employees to batten down the hatches and keep everything to themselves, but for workplaces to foster climates where a willingness to be vulnerable doesn’t mean damaging important working relationships.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.