Sharing leads to caring: Personal details help cement coworker relationships

  • March 22, 2024
  • By Suzanne Koziatek
  • 3 minute read

Many employees struggle with how much of their personal lives to share with colleagues.

Family situations, religious affiliation, health challenges—all have the potential to create a bad impression or put coworkers at odds. Previous research has been inconsistent about the benefits or drawbacks of these types of disclosures in the workplace.


Ashley Hardin, an assistant professor of organizational behavior, said prior studies weren’t looking at the big picture—they focused on the impact of specific bits of personal data, rather than the larger effects of expanded personal knowledge.

In a study published in the journal Organization Science, “The More You Know: The Impact of Personal Knowledge on Interpersonal Treatment at Work,” Hardin focused on that macro view of workplace sharing.

She found a “persistent, positive effect” of learning personal information about colleagues: You see them more fully as people and are more willing to respond to their needs.

This effect held up even when some of that information could cause potential friction—differing religious viewpoints, for example, or a family situation that may interfere with work.

“When we think about sharing something about ourselves with colleagues, we're often really preoccupied with one particular detail: ‘Should I tell them XYZ?’ And that's the way that research has thought about sharing,” Hardin said. “But allowing a broader window into who you are has positive implications for relationships, above and beyond thinking about each individual piece of information.”

Increased humanization

To study the effects of personal knowledge in the workplace, Hardin surveyed two groups: business students and team members at a top-tier global consulting firm. In each case, she looked at whether learning more about someone led to a more humanized view of that person (seeing them as someone with feelings, hopes and concerns) and whether it made colleagues more responsive to them.

In an experiment, the students were given varying amounts of personal information about a research assistant and then asked about their perceptions of him and their willingness to help him achieve his goals.

In a field survey, the consultants were asked about their teammates. Employees reported how much personal information they knew about their colleagues, as well as answering questions to show how much they humanized each colleague. Later, the colleagues reported on how responsive their teammates were towards them.

In each study, those with more personal information about someone showed increased humanization and more responsiveness toward that person. Hardin noted that responsiveness isn’t just a measure of willingness to collaborate in the workplace.

“It’s a term that is important in studying the psychology of close relationships,” she said. “It's about how you are attending to the needs and desires of the person you're interacting with, about being attuned and thinking, ‘I can help this person—I can make their day better.’”

She said the results of the study held up across genders and ages.

Coping with a changing workplace

With the rise of remote work, colleagues may learn about each other in new ways—a spouse or partner walking into the background of a video call, for example, or by social media posts—a phenomenon Hardin is tackling directly in a new working paper. Meanwhile, decreased face-to-face office time can leave employees feeling detached from each other.

These changes highlight the impact of personal knowledge in maintaining strong workplace ties, Hardin said.

“This question is something that we've grappled with for a long time, but the changes in the way that we work have made it more pronounced,” she said.

Hardin said managers can promote a more sharing-friendly workplace by normalizing personal conversations. As an example, Hardin points to a practice at Google, in which team members share a personal goal for each fiscal quarter, such as setting aside time for family or hobbies.

“Because we are now face-to-face less frequently, time for personal sharing can be squeezed out,” she said. “So, making space for it, showing that it’s OK, goes a long way in strengthening colleague relationships.”

Managers can also encourage employees to personalize their workspaces, both in the office and in backgrounds on video calls.

“Let people decorate their workspace—put up photos of things you care about, bring in things that demonstrate part of who you are,” Hardin said. “Don’t be afraid to let parts of you show, not just in direct conversation, but in the way you present yourself.”

About the Author

Suzanne Koziatek

Suzanne Koziatek

As communications and content writer for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to seek out the people and programs making an impact on the Olin community and the world. Before coming to Olin, I worked in corporate communications, healthcare education and as a journalist at newspapers in Georgia, South Carolina and Michigan.

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