In a leadership workshop, we had a conversation about whether compartmentalization is a good or bad thing. We discussed some interesting perspectives.

To start, let’s define what we mean by compartmentalization. When we compartmentalize, we separate objects, feelings, thoughts, or information into isolated compartments or categories. For example, I love going to The Container Store because it offers me all sorts of ways to organize the items in my life. I can separate the jumbled items in my bathroom drawer so that they are all easy to find. I am a fan of compartmentalization for items.

Information can be organized and compartmentalized for ease of retrieval and use. Databases and an organized computer desktop, for example, can make our lives much easier.

I think compartmentalization that happens outside of ourselves is good for the most part. By separating items and information into categories, we find them more easily. We require less hunting and brain power. It lowers our use of emotional pennies, which is always a good thing.

What about the internal compartmentalization that we do? It can be a healthy practice to keep our work separate from our home life. I remember reading about a man who stopped at a tree in his front yard each day when he arrived home from work. He pantomimed taking a large necklace off himself and placing it on the branch of a tree. He was mentally taking the worries and responsibilities of the day from himself and leaving them outside so they didn’t affect his time with his family. That’s a great practice!

How about the other way around? Can we leave all our home life at the door when we go to work? The answer is “not entirely.” When we refuse to share anything about our lives and our interests, we inhibit our ability to create positive relationships with people at work. We make it more difficult to create trust with our coworkers. We don’t have to share everything from home at work, but we do need to share a bit of ourselves with others.

Actually, we don’t want to share everything! We want to stay appropriate and professional. When I was in the throes of my divorce, I was in a lot of emotional turmoil. I didn’t need to share the depth of my despair or details of my personal life with participants in my workshops. It wouldn’t help them learn; it would, in fact, have been a distraction. I did tell them what was going on at the highest level that I could manage because I share stories about myself in workshops. I did not, however, share details of the situation or my emotions.

As a leader, it can be difficult to know how much to compartmentalize. Neither extreme is good for building positive work relationships. We can’t keep our lives completely to ourselves, and we don’t want to share every detail. We must find the place on the spectrum that is appropriate for us and the culture of our workplace.

Now let’s talk about when it isn’t appropriate to compartmentalize. This discussion requires us to go back to the concept of the 3rd Entity. Two or more people make us a system. This system or relationship is called the 3rd Entity in systems coaching. As a member of the system, everything that I think and feel is a part of the system. If I hold back, I am keeping something relevant to the 3rd Entity to myself.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that I am a member of a customer service team. I feel that we are not using the correct criteria to provide our customer service. Our conversations are timed, and we have little authority to make things right for a customer. I feel that we would be more effective if we weren’t in a rush and had some leeway on what we could offer customers. However, I keep my thoughts to myself. I am angry about the limitations, and my teammates can see my anger but don’t know what it is about.

I am compartmentalizing my anger – stuffing it down into a compartment of sorts and not talking about it. However, the anger is still present, and the system can’t do anything about it because it doesn’t know what is wrong. If the feeling, thought, idea, or information is relevant to the system, the system should know about it. If I share my thoughts and feelings, the system, my team, can then react. They may not make all the changes that I want, but by listening and sharing in a professional way, we increase the positivity of our relationship. Transparency rather than compartmentalization is usually the most effective way to keep a system (a.k.a. organization) performing at its best.

Leadership is an art, not a science. As leaders we are constantly making decisions that affect the individuals in our organization and the organization itself. How much to compartmentalize is one of those difficult decisions. Asking whether or not a potential action will benefit only us or also help the 3rd Entity in question is always a good place to start.

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