A recent Wall Street Journal article asks a question on the minds of many managers: "In an era when almost anything goes, are any topics still taboo at work?" Are there personal details you just don't want to know about your team members? Of course. But if you want to be a sensitive manager who cares about work-life balance, don't you need to be alert to what's important to people in their personal lives? Of course. So what do you do? Some expert advice:
Model what you want. As in almost all aspects of on-the-job behavior, a manager's best strategy is leading by example. If you really don't want to hear about Joe's dog's mating rituals or that Jane's having a hot flash, don't share the intimate details of your own life with the team.
This can be tricky, because you might have a different notion than your team members of what sort of details are appropriate to discuss, or of what context is OK for such discussions. In general, if it's important to know personal information to address a real workplace problem, then you should tastefully share such info. If you're just making conversation or trying to promote a friendly, open, show how that can be done without reference to uncomfortable topics.
Acknowledge your own comfort zone. Of course, you might not mind hearing about Jane's hot flash, but your male team members of a certain age might be appalled. As the manager, you need to be sensitive to the comfort-zone boundaries of everyone on the team. And it's hard to do that honestly without acknowledging your own boundaries. Whether you try to move those boundaries is up to you; you don't have to listen with pleasure to all the gory details just because you're the manager. But you do have to say why you'd rather not hear them.
What you really don't want to do is let people get put on the spot for not being "hip" or "open-minded" enough to appreciate learning each others' intimacies. If you respect the fact that your team members are human beings with human lives—and expect others to respect this as well—you'll be able not just to allow people to open up, but also to give them the freedom not to.