An open leader's guide to privacy

Should open leaders expect to have privacy?

We explore if a desire for privacy conflicts with being open.

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As the annual Defcon conference kicked off in Las Vegas this year, I followed its social media accounts full of reminders that if someone wants to find data that you've shared online, that data is findable. Those pictures on your "private" Instagram and those snaps that "disappear" aren't digital secrets. Keeping the parts of our lives that we want to remain private offline is something we must consciously consider.

But open leaders pride themselves on sharing. And yet they aren't immune to privacy considerations. Does a desire for privacy conflict with being open? Do open leaders need to surrender privacy?

The answer to both questions is no.

In this article, I'll explain why open leaders choose to share (online and elsewhere), what they can share (along with a fun example of oversharing), and how they can begin thinking strategically about their sharing activities.

Why we share: Inclusivity

As an open leader, I share because I want to be inclusive. In my moment of sharing, I set the example for others to donate their stories so we can be a more fully realized, creative group.

Sound too touchy feely for you? Think about a time when you feel like you're doing your best work. I bet your best work occurs when you're connecting with and learning from others. These feelings stem from open leaders' desire to create inclusive teams.

The word "inclusive" is the key word here, as I do not want to inadvertently exclude or marginalize anyone by sharing something private. I value the different perspectives and habits people bring to interactions, so I don't want something I post or share online to quiet others and prevent more sharing in the future. Instead, I want people to feel like they're learning something from what I share.

As an open leader, I share because I want to be inclusive.

Open leaders work to create cultures, and that sense of community is the product of shared stories. But when open leaders share stories, articles, or other personal resources using apps like Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, YouTube, Discord—whatever—how can they remain open without violating their privacy? Leaders who pride themselves on being transparent will find no definitive guide for navigating and negotiating their privacy. Whenever I find myself in this position, I ask myself an important guiding question: "Will sharing this promote inclusivity?"

What's appropriate to share?

Open leaders bring their whole selves to work—the failures and successes in their personal lives influence their work lives. This complicates easy distinctions like "public/private" or "personal/professional." What we choose to share about the experiences that impact us is our decision—but it's a complicated and difficult one, because we don't control the way others interpret what we choose to share. Brené Brown's work on courage, vulnerability, and connection has shaped how I'm willing to bring more humanity to work. I'm not a machine and people will judge me. How I handle the judgements is my decision, so I go bravely into figuring out what's appropriate for me to share.

I realize that in my attempts to be transparent and inclusive—I might share something that causes others to judge me or rule me out of a future opportunity. The subject of parenting is a great example here. Sharing that I'm a mother is a sensitive gesture. This is especially true for people who have encountered infertility or health issues and have limited parenting decisions (not to mention those who simply choose not to parent). What if someone does not offer me a job or other professional opportunity (like a role on a new internal team) because they think my parenting responsibilities will limit the time I have available to contribute?

The same concern arises when I use Twitter. I was an early fan of Twitter, as it helped me stay updated on current events. Twitter's micro-shares are perfect, because I can sample a snippet and click to read more. I share a lot of news about work-related things. I also continue to consume information about current events. But after a period of consuming information and conversation via Twitter, more people from my professional circles have begun following me. At times, they might learn something about me personally—even through posts I merely "like" or promote. What if people might try to infer some detail about me from what I like on Twitter? Even though the feature wasn't designed to influence that kind of connection in people's minds, it might still have that unintended effect. If someone chooses to make that type of connection, then that is their choice—so I let go the concern that a "like" might signal endorsement.

Yet I remain cautious when sharing. I rarely talk about my partner, parents, or friends. When I do share some bit of information about these people, I tend to overthink it. I'll ask if I overshared and I'll often get a laugh because I err on the side of privacy. The people who think I cannot be too private are my kids. They want to choose what they share about their lives. I get it, and I take that example and apply it to all of my relationships.

While I love to share and connect with people as the learnings from others has been powerfully important in my life, I don't risk giving out too much information. You can always put out more information, while pulling back is trickier business. Oversharing is a term born of people who share too much or in the wrong situations. Sharing a story needn't necessitate sharing every last detail. It might just involve sharing the parts of the story that convey your message, while also protecting your mental and emotional well being. For example, I do not talk about specific conversations, the books I read, or my interests outside of running. (If you have ever met a runner, you'll know that runners love to talk about running. Oversharing is part of that community's norms.)

Oversharing about the joys and stresses I feel after specific meetings or scrum sessions isn't helpful to our team. My kids also don't want their lives splashed on the Internet. People in my life follow me on various platforms, and if they see me posting details of our interactions, it might cause them to edit their contributions. I can share relevant, useful content without oversharing in a way that negatively impacts my family, friends, and coworkers.

How to share without losing your privacy

Whenever I find myself in this position, I ask myself an important guiding question: "Will sharing this promote inclusivity?"

I was once someone who never shared any detail outside of work status or project completion accomplishments. This singular focus on work made connecting with my coworkers a challenge—did I appear to them as a person or a machine?

So to build connection with my coworkers, I adapted how I shared. And as I adapted, I emerged as a leader. This change occurred slowly as I matured in my leadership. I talked to people and realized that if I had to question something, then I needed to pause on sharing. I also needed to ask (every time), "What's the benefit of sharing? Am I giving another person a reason to smile through a moment of connection? Am I tearing another person down with my cutting remarks?" For a moment of connection and humanity, share. To point out flaws born of frustration, write in your personal journal.

I had personal experiences that helped others see what informed my work success. My body language relaxed when I started to share snippets of stories about training my dog or watching my kids play with their friends. I and my coworkers started to relax, and we started to open up about the problems we saw impacting our ability to succeed at work.

I was surprised. My adapting to the situation led me to share more personal information and that sharing led to more success at work? Who knew?

On calls, when I heard background noises, like a cat meowing, I was open to asking to see the cat and shared a moment of connection. This doorbell ringing was not something to ignore; it was an invitation to ask the person if they needed a moment to answer the ring. We are people with lives outside of work, and while we do not want to overshare or pry into too much information, we can adapt our work to fit the lives we're living and that leads to more impactful collaboration.

I respect that many of my team members need to be offline at some point to pick their kids up from school, but will be online later, working while they wait at a sports practice. Or they might need some time off to attend the back-to-school orientation and they'll be online working later that night. When we open ourselves for people to share some private moments, we get strength to lead with humility, compassion, and dignity.

That type of open leadership is powerful as people respond to the humanity you bring to the situation and want to contribute to the organization's goals. The team wants the organization to succeed because it's a great place to work, and we've experienced the pain of working at places that are not great. Balancing privacy with openness is an odd, chaotic, messy experience that can take time to figure out. That said, when you're vulnerable to the learning, it's powerful for all involved.

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About the author

picture of Angela Robertson
Angela Robertson - I lead and manage the development and publication of technical guidance at Microsoft. As a member of the Content + Learning team for Cloud + AI, I work with people who create global developer online experiences for Microsoft, including docs.microsoft.com. We connect with customers, potential customers, and developer communities through a variety of programs.