Information is currency. In the workplace, people gain trust and earn favor by having the right information and sharing it with people who need it. Trusting co-workers often begins with a pre-payment of relevant, useful information.
During onboarding, a new employee will begin to trust the co-workers who are supportive in sharing insights, shortcuts, cautions, and history. When determining who to trust, among new colleagues that you don’t know well, you’ll initially respond favorably to those who seem open.
But being the purveyor of information can also lead to mistrust if you over-share or fail to use good discretion in considering what to share.
Discretion vs. Openness: Strike the Right Balance for Trusting Co-Workers
In this CONNECT2Lead series about The 12 Dimensions of Trust, we’ve already covered the importance of Openness as one dimension that builds mutual trust between colleagues. Openness is not, however, a license to over-share.
Discretion is equally important. Being open with what’s appropriate and useful is essential. Being open about yourself is also necessary (to an extent).
Some people go overboard with openness. They aren’t discrete. That means they are “judicious in one's conduct or speech, especially with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature.”
In the workplace, we expect people to use good discretion and avoid sharing anything that:
- Makes others uncomfortable
- Violates the privacy of others (this includes gossip!)
- Alarms others unnecessarily
- Speculates or over-reaches in drawing dramatic, unsubstantiated conclusions
- Repeats hearsay that is unfair and damages others’ reputations
- Puts them in the middle of a conflict or pushes them to choose sides
- Requires secrecy without just cause for that secrecy
A classic example for striking the right balance is determining how much personal information you share with colleagues. The dimension of trust related to openness advises us to be knowable. That means being open about your background, your workplace needs, your strengths and values, and your non-work life. But you need not take that to an extreme.
While being open, you also need to be discreet. People at work don’t need to know every detail of your personal life. It’s good for them to know that you’re married. But you’re overdoing it if they also know the details of every argument and issue you have with your spouse.
Those in management must also balance openness and discretion. There are topics discussed in management meetings that aren’t ready yet for broader sharing. Coordinated dissemination of information is better for all members of the organization. What’s more, sharing before a decision is made or before the plan is determined only rocks the boat.
Yes, managers should solicit input from people who will be affected by a decision. Gathering the information ought to be done discreetly rather than oversharing what would needlessly alarm people.
Similarly, managers must maintain discretion when talking about employees. A senior manager should never vent or share about a direct report with another direct report. It’s unfair to both the person being talked about and the person being talked to (who’s now in the awkward position of knowing things they aren’t supposed to know).
Balancing these two dimensions of trust can be tricky, especially if you personally value one far more than the other. To assess yourself on the 12 Dimensions of Trust, download this free tool from People First Productivity Solutions.
What People Think about Over-Sharing
In the moment, being on the receiving end of juicy gossip is invigorating. But it often becomes uncomfortable while hearing it or soon after. Doubts about the gossipmonger creep in – Is this an exaggeration? Is this person violating someone else’s right to privacy? Can I trust this person with my own sensitive information? Why are they telling me this?
Despite the temptation to seek out and listen to gossip, hearing it becomes a burden. You may wonder what to do with the information you’ve heard. Should you pass it along? Should you let the person being talked about know what was shared? Should you think differently about the person who shared it? How about the person being talked about?
The person who gossiped is the person who we’re most likely to distrust long term. We will withhold information from that person because we don’t want to be the subject of the next round of gossip. This is true even if we continue listening to the rumors, innuendoes and gossip being reshared by that individual.
The same sentiments surface when we are exposed to other kinds of oversharing. It makes us uncomfortable even when it piques our curiosity. There’s a certain sense of power that accompanies being in the know. But that power and initial rush are seldom worth the damage done to trust. By listening to and inviting oversharing, we inadvertently contribute to bad behaviors that impair our ability to trust the person doing the sharing.
Therein lies the rub. If you’re encouraging or indulging in others’ oversharing, you’re doing them a grave disservice. You’ll end up trusting them less for responding to your interest. That’s not fair!
If you’re the one doing the oversharing and failing to be discreet, stop and ask yourself these questions to determine what should be shared vs. what is not appropriate to share:
- Will sharing this information genuinely help the recipient with the work they need to do?
- Am I motivated to share by a desire to help or a desire to hurt someone else? (Be honest!)
- Am I talking to someone I can support or about someone who needs support?
- Will sharing this information bring people together or will it create divides?
- If the roles were reversed, would I want others to share this information about me?
It’s human nature to rationalize sharing that may not be appropriate in the workplace. We tell ourselves that others deserve it, others would do it to us, others have a right to know, and so on. Those types of rationalizations, though, should not supersede the thought process outlined in the questions above.
After oversharing, it’s impossible to rein in what you start. The perceptions others have about your oversharing (and about you) are now formed. This becomes part of your reputation. It will take time to undo perceptions that you have been indiscreet… for some, big breaches of trust in this dimension become millstones they have to carry for many years.
How to Repair a Reputation Damaged by Indiscretions
If you’ve used information as currency and enjoyed being the purveyor of inside information or gossip, you may have developed a reputation that no longer serves you well.
Your lack of discretion can simultaneously make you someone who others lean in to for all the latest scoop AND someone others avoid confiding in. When it comes to important dialogue, you may find yourself on the sidelines.
If the information you’ve historically shared is also inaccurate at times or exaggerated in any way, the mistrust if twofold. By violating both dimensions of trust – integrity and discretion – you’ve given others cause to doubt your word and your character.
Oftentimes, this sort of reputation is an obstacle to workplace relationships and can also be a career roadblock. If people feel you can’t be trusted with information and discretion, they won’t be as willing to trust you with other responsibilities and more information.
For those who have damaged their reputations in this way, it will take time to reset relationships and demonstrate the newfound commitment to discretion. These steps can help accelerate that reset:
- Acknowledge that past behaviors and choices were unwise. Admitting this to yourself, without rationalizing your actions away, is the first step because the others won’t be solid without it.
- Apologize to people you’ve injured. This includes those who were put into an awkward position because they had to carry the weight of what you shared inappropriately.
- Model the example of no longer being open to gossip or inappropriate sharing that comes your way. When people approach you with personal or sensitive information, express your discomfort and explain that you are attempting to make a change. Step out of conversations that are about others who aren’t sharing their own information directly.
- Use the questions above to evaluate your motives and to sort out whether or not what you’d be sharing is useful, professional, fair, and helpful to others.
- After you’ve broken the habit of oversharing, announce it to others. Be sure this is after the apologies and after the demonstration of new and improved ways. By declaring that you’ve made a change, you’re making a commitment. People may not believe it at first and will be watchful to see if it’s real.
- Stay the course. Because people are watching, it’s important not to backslide! Some may even test you or attempt to lead you astray.
- Go directly to people. Adopt a philosophy of “I won’t talk about you without you.” When someone may need support or is being talked about, extend a listening ear without prying. Be sure to keep these conversations confidential and to only engage in them when you have a strong relationship, an ability to help, and a motive that serves that individual.
Allow time to heal the past breaches of trust. Until people see that you are genuinely remorseful and truly changed, they will have lingering doubts. Showing them the new you will take time.