An everywomanNetwork member writes…
My company has been pretty supportive over the pandemic, particularly around the topic of mental health and stress, and there have been plenty of initiatives and resources organised to help us through the past two years. The greater acceptance for the ‘whole person’ that has been shown — and, for me, the more informal chats I have had with my line manager — have actually allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable in my company culture than I did before. Previously, there was a certain amount of understanding around employees’ emotional issues, but the feeling was still one of a line drawn between professional and the personal. Although I haven’t had any major issues, I have had stress as we all have recently and in a recent meeting with my line managers I mentioned (in what I thought was a light-hearted way) how I had had to start reining in my drinking. I knew that I had overshared the minute I said it — but I’d been lulled into a feeling of relaxed security by all the workplace culture changes. There was a pointed silence after my comment. I now feel very awkward. Although I want to explain my comment to my manager, I feel that trying to do that is only going to make things worse. How can I pull back from this mistake? But on the other side, I am also confused too as to how can I feel comfortable sharing vulnerabilities in the workplace going forward if I know that they are likely to be judged like this?
DON’T JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS AND REMEMBER WE ARE ALL WORKING OUT THE NEW RULES OF WORK, SAYS EXECUTIVE COACH LUCY BALL.
For me, your question highlights the fact that we are in a transitional phase with work, post-pandemic — and no one’s quite sure what the new rules are. The pandemic did create more acceptance of the whole person at work in many organisations, and we’re all waiting to see whether this culture will stay or swing back. From a personal point of view, I want to acknowledge how hard it is when you feel like you’ve said or done something socially unacceptable. I’ve been there and I’ve felt vulnerable and exposed and it’s really uncomfortable.
The first thing to consider here though is whether you might have made assumptions about how your comment was viewed by others. What you know for sure is that there was a silence and that you felt awkward. What you can’t be sure of is what the silence meant. You assumed you were being harshly judged, and you might be right, but there are other explanations for that silence. Maybe someone was thinking, ‘God, me too!’, or maybe they were wondering if you were okay and didn’t know how to ask. Or perhaps your manager was thinking, ‘I don’t know what the new rules are either about whether to talk about things.’ So, I would caution you to be careful about jumping to conclusions.
You ask whether you should explain your comments to your manager and my instinct would be to let it lie, because the comment was well within the range of normal, light-hearted conversation between colleagues. However, if you do decide to talk to them, I’d suggest using the chat to gather a bit more data. For example, you could say, ‘When I mentioned reining in the drinking, there was a silence and I felt awkward. Did you notice that too?’ That way you get to check your assumptions before you decide whether there’s anything that needs fixing.
You clearly value a workplace culture where it is safe to be you, and in fact it’s people like you who create that trust for others by taking the risk themselves. Sometimes vulnerability is going to be handled well by others, sometimes managers don’t have the emotional intelligence they need for such moments. Importantly, these new rules of work need to be co-created between all of us. And what you feel is a mistake is simply something unavoidable that’s going to happen again. You have to choose your battles, but I’d recommend you don’t stop being an emotionally courageous person, because the world of work needs people to show up with their values and vulnerabilities more than ever.
Lucy Ball is an executive coach and executive team coach at www.lucyballconsulting.com
SEE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO DECIDE EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT YOUR BOUNDARIES TO BE AT WORK, SAYS EXECUTIVE COACH RASHEED OGUNLARU
In any circumstance, there is going to be a personal and professional line and you’ve got to be mindful about that, even in these times where we are opening up more at work. And even though this is a situation that you wouldn’t have wanted and you feel as though you’ve overshared, this is actually an opportunity to set those barriers for yourself and decide how much of your life and personal circumstances you want to share.
One of the good things from the pandemic has been that we appreciate we’re all human beings with our own lives and challenges much more. But it’s still important to be conscious of what you do want to talk about and what you want people to know about you — and where the line is at all times, because then you will be aware of not going past those boundaries, even when you’re feeling that you can be a little bit more open. Of course, there will always be those rare exceptions, perhaps there has been a bereavement or a serious health issue, where you might need to disclose a little bit more. But in general, boundaries like this are often not things that people think consciously about, even though it’s so important to be clear on them. And if you do get into the habit of being more conscious about them, it will mean that these kinds of situations will be very rare.
In this particular instance, I’d say ‘lesson learned’ — but that this is also retrievable. Find the time and the moment — it might be your next catch-up perhaps — to speak to your manager and be ready to pick up on this issue at the right moment. For example, you could say, ’Thanks so much for all your support regarding X, Y Z project’. And by the way, I am mindful that when I was talking the other day about having a couple of extra glasses over the pandemic that was probably a bit of oversharing and it’s something that I typically don’t do anyway.’ In this way, you’ve touched on it and made it clear that you’re aware that you spoke about it. I don’t think this is a huge faux pas, it’s a very human thing to do, but I would still go back in and just reset the clock — and going forward determine your boundaries so you can continue to be open but without putting yourself in a position that feels too vulnerable.
REBUILD TRUST BY CONTRACTING WITH YOUR MANAGER ABOUT HOW YOU’RE GOING TO KEEP RELATING AT WORK, SAYS LEADERSHIP COACH KATY MURRAY
How we respond as leaders when somebody shares something that is vulnerable for them or about who they are can be a crucial micro moment. I was struck, reading your problem, how important it is for us as leaders to notice these tiny moments for inclusion and wellbeing and to help us to build the kind of culture we want to have around us.
In this situation consider that, often, when someone responds in a way we aren’t expecting we can go into our ‘own story’ — we perceive that response and then we make a story about what it means. Here your manager has hesitated for some reason, which feels awkward, but that’s not a conversation that you’re actually having with them and so you haven’t checked out that assumption. You use words like ‘oversharing’ which indicate it was a heightened experience for you and it sounds to me that you’ve gone into your head and a bit of a downward spiral, ruminating what this might mean? The blurring of the personal and public life with the past two years of working from home means that we all need to re-establish our boundaries. What do you want to share in your private space and in your public space? And then as people build trust and connection with you, you can choose what you share or disclose in those relationships. Again, it’s on our managers and leaders to build those relationships of trust, and if you feel judged, that breaks the trust.
To move forward here, I personally wouldn’t go into ‘clawback’ mode with your manager about the remark — but I do think there’s a brilliant opportunity for you to share feedback with them if you feel safe to do that. Use the classic ‘when-you-then-I’ feedback format to say something like, ‘When I shared something about my personal life with you, you reacted in this (specific) way and this was the impact on me’. That’s a powerful conversation to have, because then you’re talking with them about how you are both doing and also contracting together around how you’re going to keep relating and working together. That feels more helpful and healthy to me than feeling like you need to apologise, explain or defend, and it allows you to move on and re-establish the boundaries going forwards.
Katy Murray is a leadership coach and DE&I expert and was recently named one of top 50 UK D+I leaders. She is the author Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide to Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work.
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