Being Personal in the Workplace

Career

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jotham.lim

QUESTION

Does a healthy working culture require employees to be personal with each other, beyond the confines of work?

ANSWER

Spending over 80 hours a week surrounded by colleagues, no doubt personal boundaries will be chipped away gradually. Some would be delighted to share their newborn baby photos or stories of troubles at home, venturing into TMI territory. However, there are just as many who would dread at the idea of sharing anything personal, so much so that the anxiety would manifest into adverse physical reactions —gut wrenches and all that.

It is clear that there are no definite answers here. In fact, doing so would be borderline irresponsible.

The safe option would be to observe the circumstances and go with the flow, but such vague answers are not actionable for managers and team leaders—especially when these positions directly set the tone of engagement more than any CEO or HR personnel could.

Where should we draw the line? Is there even a line? Perhaps this question doesn’t warrant the attention I’m giving it, but here is what I’ve come up with:

On one hand, there are merits in having employee relations be strictly professional. First off, the introverted and hectic crowd would appreciate the gesture, seeing that I fall into both archetypes. A clear separation between work and personal life also generally results in better work performance and job satisfaction. (Note: Studies are industry-dependant)

Somehow, being personal within the workplace is tied closely with office politics. Those who have worked long enough would be familiar with taunts, jives and underhanded tactics commonly employed by Sun Tzu’s Art of Corporate Politics. The attacks will come, and they will hurt—anger-inducing even.

The keyword here is just that: Being professional.

Personal attacks leverage on social, mental and emotional weaknesses, but being professional provides no ammunition for them to work with. Plus, nothing can beat performance and efficiency within the workplace. White-collar workers are 21st-century craftsmen within the cubicle, and their “art pieces” are valued above all else. (Recommended read: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport)

This means treating the team no different from how you would your client or industry partner if you were a freelancer. You would have done all you can to get personal work done consistently, while compelling others to fulfil their responsibilities so that your own work can progress, but nothing more. The challenges and gaps left by others are out of your control, nor should be your concern. You’ve delivered, hit your KPIs and get happily compensated for it.

Somehow, it is strangely efficient and predictable. Being professional is a consistent way of getting these annoying flies off your backs, seeing that you are less of a threat, and thus a less attractive target. It goes without saying, but office politics introduces unnecessary and unwanted stress that will just hurt everyone involved, companies and families included.

Cold, distant, but practical. Hence, such styles are adopted by many companies, and is not unusual for sectors with high-turnover rates.

Being professional also means putting up thick boundaries between the people you work closely with and yourself. It is a mistake (?) that I’ve made in my past employments, and it did somewhat hurt the people who put in genuine effort trying to connect with me. “Why do you sound so formal? Scheduling calendar so that your people can meet my people… It’s just coffee!” It is definitely a factor I would like to change about myself now that I am somewhat guiding a team.

I’ve come across founders who build their companies with intimate, meaningful employee relationships in mind—most of which are small startups, and for good reason. While traditional capitalism dictates that companies are built solely to earn profits, leaders nowadays are looking to build fun, well-rounded and ethical businesses that they can be proud of. (See: Stakeholder capitalism)

My mentors are ex-bosses who invited me out for drinks over the weekdays. These thick boundaries over work can quickly shatter over a pint or two, and I was better off because of it, despite many embarrassing and cringed displays.

While I’ve made a joke about companies spouting familial values, some folks really take it to heart and the honest effort put into doing so deserves tremendous respect. Do also consider the existence of decades-old family businesses, with company leaders cultivating strong ties with their “lieutenants” that transcends generations. (Although, this culture also has its own unique sets of problems).


At this point, I’ve just repackaged the thesis question with more context, but not answering them directly.

What I’ve learnt is that, employees will naturally draw their own professional lines and there is little that companies can do to change that. Their influence is limited to introducing defensive policies against office politics, promoting the frequency of off-work interactions, and control the context in which it happens. Still, company barbecues and work trips hardly counts as personal and still fall under the broad umbrella of “professionalism”. However, it at least provides the circumstances for personal relations to foster (and personal conflicts to fester too).

The lines are not really drawn neatly either. Not all communication needs to shut down when the clock hits 6—there is wiggle room and social obligations, such as wedding invitations, private outings and work parties. The lines only start to get hazy when there are less fun involved, such as hospital visits, family funerals and such.

Unfortunately, the lines are also typically drawn on wet concrete rather than sand. Once established, it sets the tone of the company culture for the months or years to come. Company culture as a whole is much more inert than department or teams after all.

While companies are powerless to circumstantial and ever-evolving human relations, middle management and team leaders are much more flexible, and can play a role threading the fine line between these two worlds. I highly recommend these leaders to take the first step and extend an olive branch, especially towards the fresh and new recruits within the team.

If it doesn’t work out, and your Dev team prefers SCRUM and Slack over cups of coffee, that’s fine too. However, by sheer position of seniority, managers can’t expect the juniors to take charge connecting with the rest of the team. Even if they do manage to bring the team together, expect to be left out of these casual conversations and embrace your new status as “the boss”.

The best advice I can give so far is to be kind, empathise and try. Trying means displaying commitment and respect towards your team as individuals, not just the work they produce. It can be scary at first, and it is supposed to be. (Remember your first date?) Being nice takes a lot of effort, and rude people are not inherently evil—they are just too lazy to give a damn.

Having awesome bosses in the past certainly helps, and I’ve learnt a thing or two just by serving under them. Here are some that I’ve found useful.


  • Be liberal with praise, but fair with criticism.
    • Encouragement is free, and it’s the simplest way of acknowledging someone else’ time and effort.
    • Criticism needs to be objective. Unfair criticisms is the fastest way to drag down morale.
  • Ask questions!
    • Be curious about your team’s struggles, concerns or achievements.
  • Do something.
    • “I’m listening” or “I hear you” are bullshit terms that people can pick up from a mile away. If a teammate shares a genuine concern or request, do something about it.
  • Have regular “off-work” sessions.
    • It can be weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. But if your conversations are all just about work, don’t expect deep relationships to flourish from that starting point.
    • For me, it’s weekly shit talking sessions after a major afternoon sync-up meeting, which signals that the workday is over.

I am by no means a great example, but I sincerely believe that if you try, your team will pick up on it and will help make your life easier. It is a journey, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

With that, I wish you good luck!

Cheers

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