When sharing personal information with your colleagues is a good thing

Sharing can sometimes be caring.
Sharing can sometimes be caring.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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“Just be yourself” is often invoked as the right strategy for forming good relationships. But it’s advice that often gets moderated once we enter the workplace. While many of us might like our colleagues and feel comfortable disclosing some personal struggles, social norms often check our desires to talk about which gender we’re attracted to, our home-life issues, or the chronic pain we’re suffering from.

Now a study on revealing or hiding “stigmatized identities” suggests that in some specific cases, it’s worth being open at the office. Revealing and talking about personal information that’s not readily apparent—for example about one’s sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or the fact that one is pregnant—might feel like a big deal, but overall can have a positive impact on relationships with colleagues.

The findings come from a meta-analysis of 65 studies on stigmatized identity—defined as “a devalued characteristic within a social setting”— and relationships. The study, led by psychologists at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is due to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Business and Psychology.

In their initial analysis, the researchers found little evidence that revealing or talking about “marginalized” identities had either a positive or negative impact on work relationships or wellbeing—a finding which surprised many of the authors’ hypotheses that they would find significant effects.

But a second round of analysis, which looked at potentially significant variables, found that the “visibility” of the trait a person was sharing mattered. If a person’s condition was not readily visible—for example, if they had mental health issues—and that person revealed it to their colleagues, the co-workers tended to react positively.  Talking about something potentially stigmatizing and personal to one’s colleagues was therefore more likely to deepen relationships than to push people away.

The study suggests that the key to the positive reaction of one’s colleagues is the sharing of new, intimate knowledge—”not on the stereotypes or nature of the stigmatized identities in question, but rather on the degree of information that is being shared,” the authors write. Telling a colleague something personal which they didn’t know about before can improve your relationship with that person, the authors explain—even if there are some “negative” connotations associated with the trait at large in society, or at work. 

There’s a flip side, however.

When people revealed or talked about more obvious identities—when they weren’t, therefore, gracing their interlocutor with new knowledge—colleagues didn’t feel closer, and sharers didn’t feel better about themselves. Examples include gender and race: Talking about either of these in relation to one’s own identity elicited more negative reactions. Eden King, one of the study’s co-authors, suggested that was because such talk might be seen as advocacy for or “heightened pride” in a particular identity.

This experience was reflected in a nationally representative survey of about 2,200 Americans carried out by Quartz and SurveyMonkey Audience in January 2019. It found women were more likely than men to say they couldn’t be completely themselves at work, and a higher proportion of black people than any other race also felt it to be impossible:

The takeaway? Sharing personal, identity-related struggles or joys at work is likely to have a beneficial effect, which is good news for people who would like to talk about their gender identity, HIV status, or mental health, but worry how their co-workers will react. But those same co-workers are likely to be less sympathetic to discussion of the problems related to things they already see and therefore feel—rightly or wrongly—like they know about.