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Would I lie to you? Factors to consider when sharing your career limitations.

By Angela Lane

Being open to as many job opportunities as possible gives you a career edge. You simply have more choices. And the more different choices you exercise, the more experience and capability you build, compounding your prospects even further. Go opportunity seeker!

But other considerations, often personal, may cause you to limit your opportunity set, either temporarily, or permanently. At some stage, you’re going to have to decide whether to share those limitations with your organization.

Honesty is the best policy, right?

There are three reasons for sharing any limitations you may have around certain career prospects.

  1. Transparency allows for a two-way dialogue on what’s possible. That dialogue can’t happen effectively if the organization isn’t aware of your boundaries. You may end up spending a lot of time mulling over enticing offers that you simply can't pursue right now. By discounting the options that aren’t possible, you can focus on what is possible to advance your development and career. You can clearly signal the roles you are open to, and stress the importance of these, especially given that some choices available to others aren’t options for you.

  2. Sharing your boundaries can also reduce potential frustration. It can be frustrating to organizations to offer jobs to employees only to have them turned down, without clarity as to the “why”. In the absence of transparency, you risk a game of career “go fish”, where the organization, and it’s leaders, try to guess your intentions. It’s okay in the short term, but over time, organizations have limited patience for guessing games.

  3. Finally, you might simply feel that, as a general (life) rule, being open and honest is the way to go. There is a reputational benefit to this, too. Being straight forward has the potential to enhance your reputation as a mature talent, willing to discuss the impact of personal choices on professional development.

These are all good reasons for sharing any limitations or boundaries to your career planning. But before setting up that candid career conversation, understand the potential downsides.

Would I lie to you, honey?

Actually, we don’t recommend lying. But there are sound reasons for being thoughtful about what you share.

  1. Organizations want to understand your career boundaries so they can plan. The organization’s plans may happily co-exist with the employee’s aspirations, but business leaders will put the enterprise first. They should. That’s their job. If you share limitations, talent planning will happen around your boundaries, including investments in development, coaching, assignments, exposure, and more. In general, limitations to take up certain roles will limit your access to the "goodies" reserved for those who claim to be open to more options. In communicating that you want to “keep your options open”, rather than specific limitations, you increase the likelihood of being considered when development planning happens.

  2. Positively or negatively, decision-makers have a point of view on our choices. Depending on their values, you may be wisely putting family first for now, or lacking drive and ambition. You may be thoughtful about your development or “picky about roles”. The best organizations are sophisticated in their approach to talent management. Personal boundaries are simply one other factor considered when determining role allocation. But not all organizations have this maturity. And many leaders don’t, either.

  3. An argument that isn’t often made, but one I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to, is privacy. The reasons for our career boundaries can be professional, e.g. “I’m not moving internationally - it’s high risk and takes me away from HQ exposure...” but limitations are, for the most part personal. My health, my love life, my children, my finances … These are fundamental to me. While many people are comfortable disclosing personal circumstances, there are some personality-types that are inherently private. They need to keep personal information to themselves. It isn’t a lack of transparency. It’s who they authentically are. Increasingly, organizations, especially as we strive to be more diverse, must accept that part of individual difference is comfort with openness.

What The Poll Said

Sergey and I recently complied a LinkedIn poll that showed that approximately 80% of respondents (total N = 209) believed the benefits of transparency outweigh the potential costs.

The poll reflects a belief that, all other things being equal, we all win when we co-operate in the planning and delivery of development, growth and career success.

Is your organization relatively sophisticated in Talent Management? Are development planning and career conversations part of formal processes? Does your company identify potential and work with it to maximize outcomes for all? If the environment is mature, share your boundaries, and treat them as conditions to be worked with. And how are the leaders? Where your trust in leadership is high, transparency is beneficial. It can enable a partnership.

For some, all other things aren’t equal. So, if your assessment suggests the likelihood of judgment is high, that your choices risk being misinterpreted, if investments in development are scarce… being slower to communicate may make strategic sense.

A Final Word

Many companies have, as their stated position, that employees “own their career”. Companies got to this position, not from a desire to empower but because decades of economic uncertainties made it a necessity. Today, talent is scarce. Employees can afford to take the maxim “you own your career”, to heart. So, own your career, including your boundaries, review your context and be deliberate about disclosing.

Career competence isn’t innate. Whether we are talking about your vision of career success, the limitations you have in pursuing that vision, or the much smaller issue of how you share those limitations with others, intentionality is key. Be as thoughtful in this as you are in other aspects of your life. After all, you spend too much of your life at work not to.

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