Networking

TMI: Are You Oversharing with Colleagues?

There’s a tricky balance between finding a rapport and giving too much information.

When Jane first joined her healthcare management company, she was ready to put in the long hours and late nights to advance her career. She also saw it as a chance for fun, when her co-workers became quick friends due to her outgoing personality and her willingness to constantly poke jabs about her own love life and other personal travails.

Except, instead of those relationships positioning her for growth, she became the company clown. “She realized she was not being taken seriously as a professional,” says Katherine Crowley, the career coach whom Jane, whose name has been changed, turned to for advice.

Until you know who is truly a friend at work, keep conversations light and not too personal.

We’re all social creatures, and the hours we spend in the office, stuck in front of a computer, often leaves us craving human connection. Research shows work friendships help us thrive at work, since teams made up of friends perform better than those comprised of strangers. But what you say, both in conversation as well as through non-verbal cues, can affect the way you’re perceived by peers—and the amount of influence you hold over subordinates. Here’s how to create a safe and smart friendship circle at work.

Don’t start off as an open book.

When you first join a new company, chances are you’ll get invited to lunches and happy hours, giving you an opportunity to connect with new co-workers. But until you know who is truly a friend, keep conversations light and not too personal—sports, weather, your commute. Be friendly so you don’t come off as cold, but not overly effusive. “It takes a long time to know who your friends are at work,” says Kathi Elster, an executive coach who founded K Squared with Crowley.

It may seem natural for you to think just because you’ve gone out to lunch a few times with a co-worker that he or she will support you. But you don’t know what the co-worker will do with your information. Share that you don’t like your boss, and you could learn the “friend” let it slip at a planning meeting. Inform the person that you’re going through a divorce, and it he or she might “accidentally” reveal it at a brainstorm. Elster says such information often comes out when you aren’t there. So, until you know whom you can trust, it’s best to lay low. 

Be mindful of non-verbal messages.

Sometimes, oversharing can come in the form of what’s not said, but what’s seen. Such is a situation where a colleague may splash amazing photos of a lavish vacation on his or her office walls. This can lead to jealousy and resentment from employees. The key to avoiding this type of oversharing is setting “clear boundaries where personal life stops and professional life begins,” Crowley says.

Managers in particular risk losing face with their subordinates by oversharing. University of Maryland researchers found that when a manager discloses something that could be viewed as a weakness to a subordinate, it impacts the relationship between the two—and often leads to poorer employee performance.

Reign yourself in.

If you’re someone who has shared too much, all hope isn’t lost. You still have a chance to amend, provided you put in the effort. Once Jane realized her jokes about her personal life made her the office clown, she started revising her mannerisms. First, she stopped using self-deprecation as a way to get a quick laugh, so her co-workers would start to view her more seriously. Then she began speaking at conferences and joined task forces within the organization, giving her an opportunity to meet others and showcase her knowledge, instead of her humor. These simple changes “vastly improved her standing,” Crowley says, and eventually led to a promotion. Which ultimately gave Jane the last laugh.