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Full Selves or Intact Boundaries?
I am a young, female professor in a male-dominated field, and I lead a lab group of graduate and undergraduate students (with an approximately 50-50 gender mix). Recently, one of my younger lab members confronted me about how she feels she can’t be her full self at work, in part because she doesn’t feel comfortable crying publicly in our lab space. She also said she thinks we should talk about our feelings and share more about our personal lives. I believe people should be able to bring their full selves to the office. I also place a lot of value on having a positive, healthy lab group dynamic. However, personal-professional boundaries exist for a reason, and as a young woman, I am especially mindful of the importance of establishing these boundaries for myself and my students.
I also am frustrated because I doubt this student would ever confront a male professor about the same issues and feel I am being held to a higher standard because I am a young woman (more relatable and approachable). As a leader and mentor, how can I create a space where lab members all feel included and valued without making those of us who do not want to share our feelings at work uncomfortable?
Navigating generational differences can be challenging, and the same is true for being held to a different or unreasonable standard. Shifts in workplace trends tell us that many Gen Zers are looking for professional environments that make space for sharing feelings and being one’s full self. I suspect your employee would have approached a male supervisor with similar concerns, though her comfort level in doing so may have been different.
Like you, I believe in healthy work environments where everyone can be their full selves — though I can’t say that, most of the time, I want to sit around talking about my feelings with colleagues. I have friends for that, and most of my friends are not my co-workers. You can foster an emotionally open environment while making it clear that your lab is a professional workplace.
As a leader, share with this younger lab member what she needs to know about professional norms. Work has to get done and, ideally, that work should be done in a space where people feel safe, seen and respected, while also being held to a standard of excellence. Boundaries are important. Things can go terribly wrong when lines between the professional and personal are blurred. In addition to using this as a mentoring moment, there is an interesting conversation you could have with your employee. Ask her why she thinks you should talk about your feelings and share more. What is she hoping to get from such exchanges, and how would doing so support her professional responsibilities? I’m not sure you can or even should meet all her expectations, but you can bridge the distance between you.