illustration of birds coming out of their cages

Ever wonder how words like authentic or family got into the workplace? Nowadays, authenticity is so overused it’s practically meaningless. And family? That’s a word best reserved for your actual family.

It’s the same thing with bringing your “whole self” to work. What does it really mean? What are we supposed to do?

Without a clearer understanding, this idea of bringing your whole – or full, or true, or *gasp* real – self to work just seems too risky, too fraught with uncertainty. We’re conditioned to create a separation between our personal and professional lives, so why expose ourselves unnecessarily? You might even think, Sure, that sounds good.

But I’m not doing it.

Because what’s not said (but everybody thinks): If I’m really myself, I’ll say or do something that others won’t understand and I’ll suffer negative consequences.

What’s not said (but everybody thinks): I could get fired.

“Even though we’re talking more about authenticity and vulnerability and bringing our whole selves to work and all these things,” says Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, “I’ve always believed it’s better to say it than not say it, but it’s a whole other thing to actually do it.”

The truth is, if we don’t fully grok what’s meant by this idea or how to carry it out in the workplace, and if the proper cultural supports aren’t in place and leadership isn’t setting an example, we’ll naturally default to a more guarded way of being at work.

And that means we’re not even close to getting the most out of our working relationships or our jobs.

You can’t fire your family

At one of my first jobs at an advertising agency, this idea of “family” was used. I hadn’t heard it applied to work before, but I liked it. Advertising’s culture was looser than anything I’d experienced. We had a beer client that supplied the office with fridge-loads of brew, which we drank on Fridays (and other days) and then spilled out to the tiny pub across the street that seemed built just for us to keep the party going. One Friday a coworker, a family member, showed up late. Immediately there was a different vibe about our group. I didn’t know him well; I was a creative intern happy to be along for the ride. I mostly knew that he was a prominent copywriter whom I aspired to be like. 

And he’d just been fired.

I still remember walking home thinking: But, but… you can’t fire your family!

This is how people become skeptical of what’s really meant when organizations talk about something like “work family.” It’s family in name only, which isn’t really family. So when it comes to “whole self” and how to bring it to work, similar misgivings exist. “It’s scary to be vulnerable in certain environments,” says Mike, “and most of us, depending on our age and our background, weren’t trained that way from the get-go.”

It’s complicated. For some, the notion of bringing your “whole self” into your professional life is inspiring. It’s an invitation. It’s an opportunity to be more fully expressed, to reveal more of your true personality at work. But for others, it’s a difficult challenge. These people feel at worst threatened, and at best unclear about what it means for them. Are they supposed to act like someone they’re not? Reveal something about themselves they don’t really want to?

“There’s a risk involved in anything,” Mike says. “In any situation, in any relationship. But particularly at work, it’s our livelihood. It’s the money we make to support ourselves and our family. So, there’s a big risk associated with speaking up and bringing our whole selves. Even if it’s not that I’m afraid I’ll lose my job, sometimes even more significant is the fear of being judged, rejected, criticized, or ridiculed.”

The issue really goes sideways when some company leaders, well intentioned though they may be, try to force more personal connections at work based on a flawed understanding of how to go about it. One example involved employees being required to write highly personal poems about very difficult topics like suffering a loss, and having to share them publicly.

No wonder people are wary.

Vulnerability is not necessarily disclosure  

Working with introverts (written by an actual introvert)

Mike talks about the difference between vulnerability and disclosure. “Some of us,” he says, “are more private than others. Some of us are more extroverted or more introverted.” Bringing our whole selves to work, he says, or being vulnerable, is really just about showing up more fully with our humanity. There are people who choose not to talk about their lives or stories or feelings because they don’t want to. But, Mike says, “It’s about getting to a place of choice. It’s not that I can’t do that. It’s that I’m either choosing to do it or not do it. It’s the safety. The freedom is there to do it, but also not to do it.”

Finding environments where such freedom to choose exists isn’t easy. It turns out, until about five years ago, when people talked about your “whole self” it was more specifically aimed at supporting people to come out at work. “When I started researching Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” says Mike, “the human rights campaign (HRC) had a public service announcement and a movement around this. It was designed towards encouraging gay people to come out at work. That was the focus of it.”  

But this type of disclosure – and a major one, at that – isn’t some sort of requirement to bringing your whole self to work. As Mike says, it’s mainly about showing up at work with more of your humanity. Allowing yourself to be authentic and vulnerable, and also free to chose what you reveal about yourself.

Bringing your whole self to work is about showing up at work with more of your humanity. Allowing yourself to be authentic and vulnerable, and also free to chose what you reveal about yourself.

Today the phrase is used more, and more broadly, and can mean many different things. And this is how it becomes confusing. Plus people with different backgrounds – based on socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – might find it much harder to navigate. Says Mike, “I have people say to me, ‘Listen, that’s easy for you because you have all of these privileges.’ And I’m grateful when people are willing to say that, because it’s true.” He explains that all the conversations and considerations surrounding the idea of bringing your whole self to work are important, and often very difficult and nuanced. We don’t know what someone else’s lived experience is like, and we must keep that top of mind. Indeed, whether someone feels comfortable bringing their “whole self” to work is closely tied to their experience of privilege or lack thereof in the culture at large. Historically there are many who haven’t felt the freedom to share (let alone choose to share) more of themselves because of prevailing societal social norms, like attitudes about gender identity.

At the same time, though, we must be careful to assume that we can just look at someone and say, Oh, it’s easier for them. “What I think,” says Mike, “is it’s challenging for all of us for different reasons. And while I do believe it can be easier for some of us, I’ve yet to meet a human being where there’s no fear or no issue or no challenge they have to work through in order to [bring their whole selves to work].”

On oversharing: can you bring too much of yourself to work?

It’s not about saying whatever’s on your mind. It’s saying the right things when judicious and helpful, and having the freedom to do so in a safe environment. When doing so, particularly about company business, it can be very beneficial to company and culture.

But what to share about oneself is different for different people. It’s not just about choice, or personality. It’s also about reading the room and using good common sense. When creating a general understanding of what bringing your whole self to work actually means, it’s important to also look at this idea of oversharing. Because there are some who assume bringing your whole self means they’re free to reveal very intimate details about their lives, at any time, and in often uncomfortable situations. While this could be viewed as their choice, per se, respect for the people receiving the information is paramount. Which is to say, be conscious of your audience. It’s not just about what you talk about, it’s also about how and when.

All relationships take time, and all are based on trust. You have to know a person well enough to receive intimate details about their personal lives at work. The trust required for certain shared information has to be established. For instance, if someone’s new, and you don’t know them well, chances are it’ll be difficult to respond to something overly personal. It’s not just about the substance of what’s said, but the timing and the trust established. But if someone you’ve worked with for years shared the same information, your response would most likely be different.

“I think a lot of it comes down to some basic element of emotional intelligence,” says Mike, “which is relatively easy to understand, but again, more challenging to practice. But part of emotional intelligence is social awareness and relationship management. You’ve got to read the room.”

The fact is, sometimes we overshare and sometimes we undershare. That’s being human, and that’s why this is complex. But, particularly at work, you need a solid sense of social awareness and relationship management. It’s recognizing the need to be respectful and deferential to the environment and the unique dynamics inherent to the environment, while at the same time putting your best foot forward to show up with authenticity, vulnerability, and courage.

There are personal relationships that develop at work and grow over time to become real friendships. This isn’t just good, it’s important. To think otherwise, or to even discourage workplace friendships seems at best illogical and at worst stupid. At the same time, however, it’s important to remember the milieu – the workplace – and take care of the social agreements that are inherent to the workplace. In other words, work ain’t the pub.

Why work friends are good for you, and the science to support it

“I don’t think every feeling needs to be expressed,” says Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable. “Not every thought needs to get aired, and discretion is a very good thing. Where it gets us into trouble is when people hold back on things that can change, and should change [the organization], but they keep it bottled up.”

It’s not simply about the choice to talk about personal things, or the safety to do so. It’s also about the interactions throughout the organization – actual company business – that sometimes aren’t given the proper freedom to be discussed. What happens in organizations where employees feel a deep reluctance to share thoughts and feelings – about company issues, not just something personal – is constantly missed opportunities. How can an organization grow or improve if the employees, the people who know the inner workings best, are afraid to voice concerns? What if that fear is based in reality such that voicing anything potentially negative or at least critical is dangerous and can result in reprimand, or worse?

Ad hominem attacks are not helpful,” says Nir. “It’s important to be careful to say, ‘I don’t like your work’ versus ‘I don’t like you.’ Just because you don’t like somebody, that doesn’t mean it should be aired. That kind of stuff probably has no place in a corporate setting. You should criticize people’s output, not who they are as people.” It’s the idea of creating a safe space for respectful dissent.

Psychological safety: culture flows downhill

“I think it needs to be modeled from management,” says Nir. “Creating an environment of psychological safety is very difficult to change from the ground up. This is a type of cultural change that percolates downward. Culture flows downhill.” If management shows they support speaking truth to power, if they reward instead of punish people who take these risks, people notice and it has positive repercussions throughout the organization.

And this is how people will bring their whole selves to work.

Mike says, “I tell leaders all the time: if you want people on your team or in your organization to operate with authenticity, with vulnerability, to really bring their whole selves to work, you don’t have to do that in order for them to do it. You just make it 10 times harder if you don’t.”

10 emerging workplace trends to watch for in 2020

The name of the game is psychological safety. But creating the culture that supports it, and for people to know how to navigate it, takes time and perseverance. The ethos, though, the touchstone for understanding what “whole self” means, starts at the top. It’s a rare instance where top-down behavior sets the tone. Employees see superiors and company leaders being themselves – that is, fellow human beings. People with strengths and weaknesses. People who occasionally makes mistakes. This kind of authenticity and vulnerability resonates. Indeed, it’s courageous and people respond to it. It builds trust and loyalty. People want to know what others are thinking and feeling, especially leaders. They appreciate honesty and candor. That’s authenticity in it’s purest form, and it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. As Brené Brown, expert on the topic of vulnerability says, “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”

However, some organizations have tried to have a psychologically safe company and discovered not everyone was equally skilled at negotiating the nuances. According to Nir, the key is how well the organization can adjust, how well it responds to issues. “It’s about the repercussions of saying things that people might not like,” he says. “That’s where this problem emanates from. To have psychological safety, you need to be able to say something, to make a mistake, to make a suggestion or a comment, an observation, that someone else might not like without fear of getting fired.”

Because if you don’t feel that sense of safety, you don’t say anything. You just stay quiet. And ultimately, that’s a problem. When people are afraid to speak up, it means concerns and comments and insight that might make the work environment better are bottled up.

And there’s something else: it’s up to us. We must chose to be ourselves, the selves we want to be at work. We learn, and sometimes the hard way, about the choice to either speak up, or not to, regardless of the safety or lack thereof in our environments. Sometimes, we do get exposed in an uncomfortable way. Sometimes – and I’d argue much more often – speaking truthfully shines a light. “It’s a tricky thing to navigate,” Mike says. “But it’s like the way I ended my TED talk. A mentor of mine said, ‘Mike, you’re living your life as though you’re trying to survive it.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘You have to remember something very important: Nobody ever has.’”

If you’re living your life as if you’re just trying to survive it, remember that nobody ever has.

Why you should bring your whole self to work

Bringing your whole self to work is a direct challenge to outdated modes of separating your personal and professional lives, of cultivating split personas. It’s permission to be more of your authentic (and multidimensional) self, and abandon the mask of work phoniness. It’s an invitation to show more of your personality, your talents, and your skills at work. But, at the same time, it’s also about using good judgment, reading the room, and honing emotional intelligence skills. Organizations shouldn’t require anything that would make someone feel uncomfortable, but they should actively support more openness. And, employees have a responsibility. It’s important to be courageous and speak up, while always using savvy and not losing sight of the bigger picture and certain unavoidable realities of the workplace.

But perhaps the best evidence to support creating an environment where people feel safe to be more themselves is this: better work. Better relationships. Better culture.

Among high achieving teams, 55 percent have a culture of sharing who they are and what’s going on outside of work, compared to only 17 percent of people on low-achieving teams.

When people feel more comfortable, they bring more to the table. 90 percent of employees surveyed said they performed better “when their company supports their emotional wellness.”

In the section of Indistractable called “How to make your workplace indistractable,” Nir describes companies that don’t struggle with distraction – that is the ones that keep their eye on the ball – as ones that:

1) Give people psychological safety.

2) Give people an environment to talk about concerns. Whether it’s specific feedback meetings, or chat channels meant for the voicing of concerns.

3) Give people a model. That is, management exemplifies what it means to live the company culture and values. For example, on Slack’s walls is, “Work hard and go home.” That’s a message from management for what the company culture should look like.

Does bringing your whole self to work mean you don’t have a professional manner? Of course not. But to deny or push aside the fact that we’re human beings with emotions and feelings working together is not just draining and bizarre, it’s bad for your company’s bottom line. Instead, it’s much more effective on a number of levels to acknowledge our humanity and learn to work with it. Yes, even in business contexts. And studies prove this. People who feel more supported for being themselves draw more upon their natural strengths and in turn bring more to their interactions, more truth and clarity and wisdom and passion. In other words, they care more, they give more, and they’re more valuable to the organization because they feel seen and better understood as themselves: full human beings.

This doesn’t mean saying everything that’s on your mind, or happening in your life. Like any important relationship, personal and professional, these should be handled with care and responsibility. But being afraid to talk, or unsure if you’ll risk your career by being honest, are uncertainties that should be addressed by healthy company culture.

Because when people are hiding, when people are playing it safe, when people aren’t bringing their whole, true selves to the work they do, they’ll never be what they could be for an organization. They’re along for the ride, not leading the charge.

And to be successful, to really succeed, you need an organization full of leaders not followers.

Why we don’t bring our whole selves to work