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Should you bring your “whole self” to work? Why has this become a heated debate?
Many workplaces are encouraging employees to bring their “whole (authentic) self” to work. However, not everyone can agree on what exactly this means or what the risks and benefits are to your career.
Keep reading to learn more about bringing your whole self to work and why it’s debated.
What Does Your “Whole Self” Mean?
The concept of bringing your whole self to work—sometimes called being your “full self” and “authentic self”—has been around for decades. Some credit psychologist William Kahn—the so-called “father of employee engagement”—with introducing this concept in the 1990s.
Because the term “whole self” is somewhat vague, people interpret it in various ways. However, most people generally agree that it means the following:
- Being open about your identities (such as your religion and sexuality) at work
- Feeling empowered to express your values and opinions
- Being personable with your colleagues and caring about their well-being
Several recent events have led to an increase in whole-self workplaces:
- The “racial reckoning” of 2020—protests against racial injustice and increasing awareness of systemic racism—put pressure on workplaces to focus more on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- The Covid-19 pandemic blurred the line between “work” and “home” for employees who started working remotely. This change sparked widespread conversations about work/life boundaries.
In this article, we’ll explain reasons for and against bringing your whole, or authentic, self to work. Then, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of the whole self movement in U.S. workplaces.
Why Be Your Authentic Self?
In The Gifts of Imperfection, author Brené Brown says the first guidepost for living wholeheartedly is being authentic. You might think that authenticity is a trait that you either have or lack. However, this isn’t true. Being authentic is a way of thinking and acting. It’s making the conscious choice to show your whole self to the world. This means all of your whole self, including the more vulnerable parts—for example, your fears, your imperfections, and your quirks.
Being authentic takes a lot of courage. Letting the world see who you truly are can be a scary process. To take this courageous step, you’ll need to learn to accept your vulnerabilities. If you see your vulnerable parts as flaws to be ashamed of, you’re going to try to hide these parts of yourself. This is incompatible with authenticity.
Instead of being ashamed of your vulnerabilities, recognize them as important parts of your individuality. They’re not flaws to be hidden. Instead, they’re gifts that add to your uniqueness. Adopting this mindset will increase your self-worth. You’ll stop seeing your vulnerabilities as evidence you’re “not good enough,” and instead be able to fully accept yourself for who you are.
TITLE: The Gifts of Imperfection
AUTHOR: Brené Brown
Why Think Twice About Being Your Authentic Self?
In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, author and business coach Marshall Goldsmith argues that many self-help manuals laud the importance of “living authentically” or bringing your whole self to work. In theory, living authentically isn’t a bad thing. Expressing your real self is much healthier—emotionally and mentally—than pretending to be someone you’re not. However, some leaders take this principle a little too far. They start to use “authenticity” as a justification for their bad behavior.
Leaders or employees who adopt this bad habit become fiercely protective of their right to behave badly. They believe that their harmful habits should be celebrated because they’re a part of their “authentic self”—a part of what makes them uniquely special. In their eyes, abandoning their poor behaviors would be disingenuous and disloyal to themselves, so they refuse to do so.
For example, an executive Goldsmith worked with refused to give his subordinates praise because he believed that praising people just wasn’t “him.” He argued that giving his colleagues encouragement would make him feel like a “phony.”
People who engage in this habit become so focused on protecting their own feelings—specifically, their feelings of being authentic and true to themselves—that they stop caring about how their behavior makes other people feel. This selfishness and lack of care for others severely harm their reputation.
The Healthier Behavior: Stop seeing the idea of changing your bad behavior through the lens of “how will doing this make me feel? Will it make me feel like a phony?” Remember that your feelings aren’t the only ones that matter. Instead, think “how will changing my behavior make others feel? Is remaining “authentic” to myself worth the damage that I’m currently doing to both other people and my own reputation?”
TITLE: What Got You Here Won't Get You There
AUTHOR: Marshall Goldsmith
The Promise of the Whole Self Movement
Some claim that employers’ efforts to create whole-self workplaces are well-intentioned: They aim to destigmatize mental illness and disabilities and make their workplace more welcoming to people with marginalized identities.
Supporters argue that when workplaces encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, there are positive results:
- Employees build stronger relationships with coworkers. This can make work more pleasant and increase collaboration.
- Strong relationships with coworkers also open doors for you to advance in your career.
- Research suggests that workers who bring their whole selves to work are happier and more likely to innovate.
The Pitfalls of the Whole Self Movement
Others take a more skeptical view of the whole self movement, claiming that the language of “whole self” is corporate jargon that employers use to seem inclusive instead of offering tangible support for workers (such as pay equity).
They warn that employers’ efforts to build whole-self workplaces can backfire:
Workers Feel Uncomfortable
Workplaces’ efforts to encourage people to reveal their whole selves, such as training that involves personal reflection, make some workers feel uncomfortable because not everyone wants to bring their whole self to work. Some people prefer to keep their personal lives private to preserve their work-life balance.
It Degrades Professionalism
Some leaders and workers misinterpret the whole self movement as an invitation to be less professional. This can lead people to share offensive political views. For instance, Google’s efforts to be a whole-self workplace recently backfired when a software engineer shared his offensive views on women in tech.
People With Marginalized Identities Feel Deceived and Unsafe
Finally, some claim that workplaces deceive employees with marginalized identities, telling them to bring their whole selves to work but failing to cultivate an environment that’s safe for them to do so. For example:
- Due to workplace transphobia, some transgender employees worry they’ll face harassment if they come out at work.
- Due to negative stigmas associated with race, some Black employees feel they can’t bring their whole selves to work. For instance, they worry people will judge them if they wear their hair in locs or speak African American Vernacular English.
- Some workers with disabilities feel the need to hide their disability out of fear their employer will offer them fewer opportunities for advancement.
How Can Workplaces Avoid These Pitfalls?
To avoid these pitfalls, experts recommend that workplaces take the following actions:
- Increase representation of marginalized people in the workplace so people with those identities feel more comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
- Normalize non-dominant cultures and the needs of marginalized people. For example, have workers share their pronouns when they introduce themselves.
- Establish and fund employee resource groups so employees with shared identities can safely discuss solutions for workplace issues they’re facing.
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