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You’re grabbing a quick coffee between meetings and as you head back to your desk, your colleague corners you. Before you’ve even had a chance to say “hi,” she has launched into an argument she had with her boyfriend the previous night — and is showing you the furious text exchange between them.
Not wanting to be rude or insensitive, you nod and make sympathetic noises with one eye on the unanswered emails and Slack messages piling up on your computer. Although you feel for her — she’s nice, and he does sound like a nightmare — you don’t know her very well, so the encounter is more than a little awkward.
We spend approximately a third of our lives at work, so fostering positive relationships is essential. Work friendships aren’t just about having someone to chat to, but they provide tangible career benefits too. Research by Gallup found women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).
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Of course, getting to know your colleagues and building true friendships means going beyond the usual polite small talk. But is it possible for things to get too personal at work?
One key issue is that oversharing can blur the boundaries between work and home, says Alice Stapleton, a career change coach. “For some, that’s not what they want. However, for others, that’s a good thing for your working relationships,” she explains.
“Obviously, there’s always a line between sharing personal information and a case of Too Much Information — no one needs to know about every bowel movement or your sexual encounters, for example.
“But bringing more of ourselves to work can help develop a culture of integrity, authenticity, and transparency, which often works wonders for building better working relationships,” she adds. “After all, we’re all human. Why pretend we’re not? It’s all about reading the room though — you know what’s appropriate in your own place of work, and what isn’t.”
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Ultimately, it depends on the culture and values of where you work. Relationships in a large, corporate workplace may look different to those in a smaller, close-knit company.
“If you’re part of an empathetic and compassionate team, being open and transparent at work can be highly rewarding,” Stapleton says. “However, if colleagues appear judgemental, and gossip is rife, it may not be a helpful environment to be sharing personal information, as it’s likely to be used against you in a way you can’t control.”
There’s also a distinction between bringing your “real” self to work and being too personal. Being authentic is a key factor when it comes to building trust and problem-solving in a workplace, but having clear boundaries is equally as important in a professional environment.
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Without these limits, we may say or do things that have the potential to come back to haunt us. An employee who tells coworkers they’re looking for a new job or who shares work problems on social media may end up in trouble, for example.
And it’s important to remember that work friendships can change over time, too. Like any friendship, you have to work hard to maintain that relationship and build up trust slowly. Any number of things can negatively affect a work friendship, such as jealousy over a promotion, or expecting too much of someone else. Conflict is always a risk and if the relationship turns sour, it can create all sorts of problems.
But this isn’t to say we should be aloof or paranoid at work. It just means that we need to use common sense in our professional communications and relationships to make sure we aren’t harming our prospects.
“As the boundaries between work and life become more and more blurry, especially at the moment, sharing personal information can have its benefits,” Stapleton says. “By sharing what’s going on for you, you might learn others feel the same, creating a more supportive and empathetic environment. We can feel less isolated when we learn others are struggling with similar issues.”
It can also add context to certain situations, aiding better understanding between colleagues too.
“Finally, by sharing personal information, we show a vulnerable and courageous side, which can build a more authentic and deeper bond between team members,” she adds. “A team that knows one another well, and has each others’ backs is usually an effective one.”