Success in the workplace demands the involvement of other people. Jobs have become so complex, especially in their technical demands, that everyone can benefit from both receiving and offering assistance. Typical questions cooperative people ask each other include, "Do you know more about this new software than I do? Who would be a good lawyer to include in these negotiations? Do you know a financial adviser who could help me with investments?"
If people develop close relationships with others, they must learn to trust one another. Trust always involves vulnerability. Others may take advantage of what were thought to be trusting relationships.
Vulnerability can involve many issues. If people are cheated in financial transactions by colleagues they trusted, they are likely to become extremely upset. Trust can also be broken when people feel that confidential information has been leaked to an organization's competitors. Working with outsiders to their company, two engineers may have shared information about company secrets concerning new technologies. They trusted that the outsiders would consider the information both confidential and proprietary. If the outsiders share this information with the company competitors, the engineers will become known as careless and as poor judges of character. This will affect their reputations, and they may find that they are not asked to become involved in sensitive projects.
Another type of vulnerability involves personal information that people do not want widely divulged. If two individuals develop a close relationship, there is almost always highly personal information that they share with one another. This information can include past relationships that went sour, what they really think about their boss, difficulties with their children, and what their personal long-term goals are. When people who were once close friends cease their relationship, a reason for their parting often involves the violation of trust concerning such confidential information. One individual thought that a piece of highly personal information would not be shared outside the friendship. The other person blabbed the information to others. People take these violations very seriously and do not forget them quickly.
When people move from place to place, it is wise to be attentive to norms concerning when people communicate information to others. Difficulties arise when one person feels that personal information should remain confidential, but the other does not receive this message.
Assume a person tells a colleague about a negative experience in the local community. Where I was socialized (New England), the colleague would not share this information with others unless the person had specifically said that it would be acceptable to do so. In Hawaii, my observation is that people share information unless there is a specific agreement that it not be communicated with others. The "default option" is different. In one place, it is "when in doubt, don't tell others." In the other, it is "tell others unless there was an agreement not to do so." There can be misunderstandings, sometimes bitter, if people are unaware of this difference.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: email@example.com