The modern work environment is more inclusive than in earlier decades. Business leaders are told to bring their “full, authentic self” to the office. But because of greater transparency, there’s also the potential to alienate employees or undermine your credibility. How can professionals conduct themselves at work to maintain order and delineate the office from personal life, while simultaneously connecting with colleagues in a meaningful way?
Answering this question depends on your circumstances, setting, company culture, and evolving social norms. There is no “one size fits all” approach to authentic leadership and professionalism. To help you navigate complex interactions with peers, direct reports, you must first understand your audience.
“Reading the Room” in a Professional Setting
As with any endeavor, information is power. The more you know about your surroundings, the more strategic you can be about relationship-building. Here are some tips for taking the emotional temperature of a room:
- Pay attention to your colleagues’ feedback, including verbal and nonverbal cues. Look for signs of engagement: eye contact, smiling, nodding, asking questions, laughing, verbal affirmation. Keep in mind cultural norms that can influence people’s reactions, and if you’re unfamiliar with someone’s background, try to familiarize yourself with their communication style and preferences.
- It never hurts to ask questions and invite others to share what they think. Create a judgement-free environment where people are comfortable expressing themselves without fear of retaliation. To encourage people to open up to you, offer a compliment first. For example: “The report you sent me yesterday looks great—very comprehensive. You seem to have a strong grasp on the situation—what do you think about next quarter’s projections?”
- When someone speaks to you, consider the connotations of their words. Subtle inflections can hint at a person’s underlying attitudes and beliefs. For example, the same proposal could be “risky” or “bold,” depending on the speaker’s perspective.
- Review your employee handbook and think about the overall company culture and values. How can you engender these ideals in your interactions?
- How much do executives share about themselves? Align your communications with the examples you’ve observed from others in similar positions.
- Social norms change over time, and it’s your responsibility as a business leader to familiarize yourself with those developments. This might require a degree of impartiality and reflection. Read broadly and try to put yourself outside your immediate comfort zone—for example, by looking at local news sources and engaging with the arts.
- Gauge your audience’s emotions and factor that into your approach. If they seem preoccupied, it might be better to keep the conversation brief or regroup later.
How to tell if your communication style isn’t working
Setting Boundaries Between Work and Personal Life
Your communication goals at work are different from how you communicate with friends and family. In a new professional setting, stick with topics that relate to work or the situation at hand. Too much familiarity blurs the line between public and private discourse and can alienate or frustrate colleagues, particularly in top-down businesses with power disparities.
- Come up with a list of your most significant accomplishments. What lessons did you learn from them? What about your failures? This brief outline can help you identify stories you can share with others to help build rapport and demonstrate ideas in a clear, memorable fashion. This tactic works best when you have time to prepare, such as with an introduction or speaking engagement, but it can also be a good jumping-off point for project reviews and one-on-one instruction.
- Only reveal information that’s timely, relevant, and consistent with the company culture. People are busy throughout the day and might not want to get roped into small talk. Before broaching a topic, decide if the audience will have an emotional stake in the discussion.
- Avoid sensitive trigger subjects, like politics and personal finances. These types of conversations come with significant social risk without much payoff—it also could potentially land you in hot water with HR. Ask yourself if your words could be used against you, literally and in a different context.
- Intimacy must be earned. Before you disclose anything personal, weigh the strength of your relationship to the other person. How long have you known each other? Have they shared anything personal with you first? Forcing an exchange can make the other person feel burdened—or worse, make you seem disingenuous.
- A well-timed revelation could strengthen your relationship with another person. If you can help someone with your story, open up to them, even if it means breaking from convention. Leaders like Richard Branson, Patty McCord, and Oprah Winfrey have all built empires and leveraged personal anecdotes to persuade, inspire, and teach employees. According to Phil Knight’s autobiography, Shoe Dog, Nike even designated their executives “Corporate Storytellers” because they recognized the power of narrative.
Putting Emotional Intelligence Into Practice
Your relationships and interactions with coworkers are subjective and will likely change over time. Rapport isn’t something that develops in a day—it requires continuous observation and labor. If you’re not comfortable reading your colleagues’ emotions or want to develop a robust conversational repertoire, an executive coach can help.
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