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Dear Anna,

We are a friendly team and take an interest in each other’s lives outside of work. One team member doesn’t participate, and it’s being noticed
by others.

What can we do?

A sense of belonging, closeness and connection is important to many people, but not everyone. It’s a common assumption that everyone reacts positively to support from people at work. But one size doesn’t fit all. Educator and psychologist Geraldine Piorkowski called this the “threshold effect”, where a relationship becomes too close for comfort. Rather than friendly interest bringing the person closer, it pushes them away. 

A recent study by the Academy of Management has confirmed that people reach this threshold when they are asked to disclose too much about their own lives, or others around them share too much. It turns out that oversharing is just as damaging as being a closed book.  Here are three things to consider as you find the right amount of sharing for each team member.  

Look for signs:  a person’s facial expression and tone will give you a good indication of their interest in the conversation. Polite responses are a sign you are reaching the limit, while genuine interest will show you it’s motivating for them. If they remember details and ask questions in the next conversation, you are onto a winner. If they don’t show any further interest, that may be enough for them. Continuing to be friendly could backfire by reducing their sense of belonging in the team rather than increasing it. 

Get the fit right:  aim to give team members the right amount of emotional support. It may not be the same as your need or the needs of other team members. Rather than asking them how they feel (because it’s a rare person who will state openly that all the chat about a team member’s new puppy, apartment or hobby is driving them crazy), be observant of people’s actions.  For example, if they start replying to an email or get up to make a cup of tea when the puppy photos start circulating, it’s probably time to scale back on sharing personal details.  

Performance is the best indicator: A team member who is meeting their commitments, sharing their knowledge, helping others and being proactive is probably getting the right amount of emotional support from their team. Too little and they might second guess themselves, seek out more social interaction with others, or seem less motivated than usual.  Too much and they might not collaborate when it’s useful or co-ordinate their workflow efficiently, or they might seem disinterested in their work. 

We all want people to bring their whole selves to work, but it’s also good to remember there are many different reasons why people don’t always participate in teams the way we expect them too.