Shhhh: Is Keeping Your Personal Business Quiet Best For Women in Leadership?

Keeping your personal and professional lives completely separate may not be optimal.

Keeping your personal and professional lives completely separate may not be optimal.

If you are like me, you have likely been chastised that as a woman in business, you cannot allow your private life to leak into your professional life. Keep your relationship business to yourself. Stay quiet on the home front. The fun front. The hobby front. The relationship front. The complications front.

Traditionally we have been told to do our best to maintain that impenetrable wall between home and work — even if celebrities are leaking their personal joys and sorrows all over the place.

Women have been told to keep a wall between home & work even if it’s unhealthy #equality

Angelina Jolie recently went on the record for the first time after her divorce from husband Brad Pitt. And in a global press conference from Cambodia, in what many say was a plug for her upcoming movie, First They Killed My Father,  she spilled the beans on her personal life.

“’We’ve been coming back and forth for 17 years, it feels like a second home to me,’ Jolie told reporters at a press conference the day before the film’s Cambodia premiere where she stepped out with the whole family,” People reported.

But as new research shows, Jolie’s recent actions of talking about her personal life at a business event may be more on target with what is healthy. As women in leadership, new studies say you can go ahead and share, just not too much.

“While people can put physical boundaries in place all day, it doesn’t stop their minds from wandering between the two worlds, which often can create more strain. For instance, while at a late night meeting, you may find yourself wondering about your kid’s soccer game you’re missing or while at date night with your significant other, you wonder if that important email came in. These thoughts can be summarized by the psychology concept, ‘cognitive role transitions,’ in which a person is actively engaging in one role while thinking about another,” writes Rachel Ritlop in Forbes.

“A recent study examined how cognitive role transitions influence employee work performance. The research concluded that employees who kept their work life and personal life highly segmented, with many boundaries between the worlds, experienced higher levels of depletion and stress. Employees who had fewer boundaries between the two worlds experienced more frequent cognitive role transitions in a given day, but weren’t as depleted or stressed as the more rigid sample. The researchers concluded that it appears employees who allow the worlds to intermingle, by doing things like taking personal calls while at work, are able to more efficiently navigate between the roles which led to a quicker recovery time and more productivity,” Ritlop writes.

You may not have been able to successfully keep the two worlds segregated anyway.

A new report by the International Labor Organization and the research institute, Eurofound, of workers who telecommute from home shows the lines between professional and personal lives are blurred. Workers from 15 countries including the U.S., 10 European Union States, as well as Argentina, Brazil, India and Japan says there is “an overlap between paid work and personal life,” according to Voice of America.

For women in leadership, you definitely do not want to appear as unhinged as the Amy Schumer character in “Trainwreck,” but you do want to allow yourself some room to react to what is real and to be authentic.

As someone who has found out very bad news while at work – death of family members, results from a medical test and news of an accident–and handled difficult long-term family issues while under deadline, I know all about compartmentalizing. I tell myself to get this project complete, then I will deal with the other matters later. It seems to help my focus.

I have also found that quietly and tersely explaining what is really happening personally helps assuage fears and anxieties with coworkers, peers, employers and clients about my performance. I do not go into details. So I suggest if you have big news or complications you are dealing with, that you be brief and vague, but know that what you say will likely elicit compassion, empathy and a desire to help you through a rough time. You will likely feel relief from the anxiety that comes from trying to juggle everything and be stoic. Women in leadership have real lives, too.

Women in leadership have real lives too #taketheleadwomen

“Part of the anxiety that occurs during such urgent situations comes from feeling a loss of control, says Matthew Digeronimo, a retired nuclear submarine lieutenant commander and coauthor of Extreme Operational Excellence: Applying the U.S. Submarine Culture to Your Organization,” Gwen Moran writes in Fast Company.

He recommends identifying the things you can adapt or adjust to regain some of that feeling of order. ‘If a family member is ill, you might not be able to control the illness. But you can control the manner in which you rally around that person. You can control your working hours, or the way you react to it,” he told Moran.

Other tips to authentically dealing with the leaks of personal and professional issues,  according to Moran, include:

  • “Figure out what can wait. Separate the things you must do from the things you can cut back on. Allow others to handle certain tasks and make a list of priorities so you know exactly where you can save time.”

  • “Let go of perfectionism. When you’re good at your job it can be hard to accept ‘good enough.’ But one way to free up your energy for other concerns is to learn when ‘good enough’ actually is.

  • “Don’t overshare. If your problems will require you to alter your working arrangement, you should let your boss and some co-workers in on the situation. However, beware of starting office gossip that can add to the stress.”

  • “Take care of yourself. Get good sleep, stay healthy and allow others to help you when you need it.”

You don’t have to be Angelina Jolie to gracefully cross between work and real life #womenleaders

You don’t have to be Angelina Jolie to gracefully cross the lines between work and real life. You also do not have to appear to be someone who is unreliable and out of control. You can have the best of both worlds and get your work done while maintaining your dignity and authenticity. Life happens. Sometimes it happens at work.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon