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When is it OK to bring your personal life to work?


Work is work and home is home. Or so we’re told. From school onward, we’re taught it’s ‘business, nothing personal.’ To keep things professional and never take your personal life to the office.

These idioms may be spouted as gospel by managers and business coaches around the world. But they are, of course, impossible. Whether you’re a CEO or an intern, your personal life will affect your time at your work. Colleagues will know someone is having a good or bad day, no matter how hard it’s hidden.

For someone working in HR or customer service, this is accepted as the norm. But business leaders put undue pressure on themselves to act like everything’s fine. So why do we try so hard to split the personal and the business? We caught up with Michael Malone, ex-Marine, long-time technology CEO and Vistage Chair since 2005, to find out, and explore some of the answers.

Daily peaks and troughs
People are used to dealing with the daily peaks and valleys of running businesses and managing stress at work. Some issues are out of our control, but there are also many we can fix. When we have a high-performing business, we assemble our team and collectively come to the best solutions. We evaluate for reasonableness, risk, affordability and time. We decide on our course of action – and then execute.

But things change when personal problems are ignored in the workplace, says Michael. “When issues arise in our life, we feel the need to be strong, so we keep our personal ‘stuff’ at work to ourselves. We refuse to be vulnerable. In our minds, we cannot be perceived as weak or unable to manage stress at work. We also don’t have a clue how to solve personal problems by ourselves.”

At Vistage, Michael’s influence has seen a move towards acknowledging the ‘whole human’ – not just the ‘work self’ – and bringing ‘the personal’ forward.

“Confidentiality is the number one rule when it comes to honesty at work. When confidentiality is king, people reveal their true selves, and the by-product is trust. We share personal triumphs and tragedies as well as the business victories and challenges. When something good or bad happens, we celebrate and suffer together.”

This allows companies to determine if the issues involved are serious enough to require professional help, says Michael. “From there everyone can work together – towards a happier colleague, and a more productive one.”

Vulnerability is strength
It may seem counter-intuitive, but those who are confident and open enough to show vulnerability among their peers are often stronger in the long run.

As far back as 2011, a study by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) surveyed CEOs who had achieved significant success in their career. To the researcher’s surprise, vulnerability was a leading trait found among every single subject. Despite wide acceptance of the results, many business leaders have still not fully internalized and acted on them. Being vulnerable as the person in charge is still too often seen as weakness.

The opposite is true: vulnerability brings teams closer together, especially when it’s a leader being open and honest. Indeed findings from a 2007 Personnel Decisions International study suggest that teams who allow vulnerability among colleagues display enhanced attention and performance to their work.

Be your true self
We’ve all been there; The colleague in front of you putting on a braggadocious performance. Confident, gesticulatory…and completely transparent.

“It’s a fairly simple rule,” says Michael, “but be who you really are. Honestly will ensure people see you as authentic, trustworthy and someone to work hard for. In short, you will earn the respect of others – even if that honesty means divulging a little of your personal self.”

Among its findings, the MGSM study found one CEO who, upon being promoted to management, felt unsure of how to balance his personality and newfound professional role. He admits to switching uncomfortably between ‘the boss’ and the ‘everyday him’, never too authoritative, never too honest. His inconsistent behavior meant that his colleagues wasted energy trying to second-guess him and the knock-on impact was poor performance and financial results.

The CEO realized that he needed to stop questioning his style and focus on his authentic self. Instead of faking his business persona, he brought his true key values from outside of work – fairness, accountability, empathy and connection. After that, his team began to engage with him in increasingly positive ways, and his superiors became more trusting and supportive. The effect was a huge increase in his leadership effectiveness ratings and a threefold increase in the company’s profits over the next five years.

Associate with people you can trust
While it’s never wise to form cliques or cabals in the office, having a handful of people which you can trust, and to who you can open-up completely, is a healthy thing.

“Most people have a sibling or a best friend in whom they can confide. But everybody should have a professional equivalent as well, whether to discuss work difficulties or how personal difficulties are affecting your job,” says Michael. “Find them. Trust them. Use them as a tool, but not as a crutch. Above all, listen to them.”

Finding this work confident is especially important for leaders and CEOs, who often report a feeling of isolation around their work. Such bottlenecking is never healthy, for business or personal wellbeing. Isolation has been found to compromise decision-making, create closed-mindedness and curb innovation – which now, more than ever, is the lifeblood of company growth and success.

Who you confide in is down to you, of course. But there are professional considerations. Personal life is one thing, but sharing business fears and worries is perhaps best done with your management team. If you’re still not comfortable doing that, peer to peer advisory groups can be a great form of private therapy. The main point is not what you disclose or discuss, it’s more the way you do it.

Try to manage people in a way that simply isn’t you, and the lack of authenticity will show. Be yourself, however, and your passion and values will instill your staff with confidence, drive and enthusiasm.

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