November 8, 2021

Can We Really Expect People to Bring Their Whole Self to Work?

These days, the phrase “bring your whole self to work” is everywhere.

But what does it really mean?

Many companies use it as a proxy for inclusion. If people are fully themselves, then the workplace must be inclusive, right?  

But the overuse of this phrase, born of good intention, has stripped the words of their meaning and given them mythic - and unrealistic -  proportions.

Do you bring your whole self to work?

Surely, there are elements of yourself that you choose to leave at home, for privacy or other reasons. This can mean you work for a non-inclusive organization, but often, it simply shows good judgment.

You might not have slept well, you might have had a disagreement with your partner or you may simply be in a bad mood. You might have thoughts you aren’t ready to share, or be holding back to focus on listening to others. You are a complex and multifaceted individual: there are many legitimate reasons why you don’t bring everything about yourself to the office.  

Then, how much can you ask this of others? When you expect employees to bring more of themselves to work, you are putting the inclusion burden on them.  You are asking them to be vulnerable, to do the work that you or the organization may not be doing.  

In a recent Reflection Point program with a group of women of color in a multinational electronics retailer, the double edge of this expectation got airtime. One participant described the group’s insights, informed by their diverse experiences with gender and race at work:

“We were talking about one of the characters and the conversation turned to the whole bring-your-whole-self-to-work debate. We talked about how leaders, especially in our company, like to say, ‘We want all our employees to bring their whole self.' We reflected that it's very well meaning, but even if they want you to bring your whole self, we had a strong shared sense that we can't. It might unintentionally hurt us in a professional sense, whether it's the way we dress or how we style our hair or just our personalities. For example, I'm a Latina so our leaders get fired up because that's part of who I am. But, like the others, I have learned when to hold back. We all hold back in different ways, and only our true inner circle sees who we really are.”

It’s time we flip this idea on its head.

Instead of asking people to bring their whole selves to work, we need to intentionally build a culture that invites colleagues to lean in, that inspires them to choose to express unique ideas and points of view, even if others disagree. We need to create an inner circle, where people feel safe to be themselves.

It’s not about personal style, it’s about substance. Ideas, experience, expertise - these matter. Making this “inner circle” culture a reality requires an organization to open the aperture to new ways of thinking, and to find ways to help colleagues practice sharing and exploring divergent views.

This starts with you. As a leader, your willingness to open yourself up, to be visibly vulnerable, inspires your team. Telling your personal stories goes a long way to building authenticity and empathy, proven drivers of organizational trust. Instead of asking others to be vulnerable, you must become more vulnerable yourself.

The results are powerful. When one person begins to share a personal story, a shortcoming, a sensitivity, they set the stage for others to do the same. Your stories will inspire your team to share a little more of themselves, once you have made the space and time.

It takes practice. But with your commitment, and a willingness to start, the team culture shifts. Your colleagues reciprocate with their own contributions. And before long you have created the space for others to feel that their voices are heard and their perspectives valued. They can let their hair down a bit more - and so can you.

Still want your colleagues to bring their whole selves to work?  You first!

Image Credit:
Miriam Schapiro, Stepanova and Me, after Gulliver, 1993, via
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