About bringing your ‘whole self’ to work

William Kahn conceived the concept of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ as part of his 1990 paper titled, ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work‘ (from The Academy of Management Journal).

In it, he writes,
People occupy roles at work; they are the occupants of the houses that roles provide. These events are relatively well understood. Researchers have given less attention to how people occupy roles to varying degrees—to how fully they are psychologically present during particular moments of role performances. People can use varying degrees of their selves, physically, cognitively, and emotionally, in the roles they perform, even as they maintain the integrity of the boundaries between who they are and the roles they occupy. Presumably, the more people draw on their selves to perform their roles within those boundaries, the more stirring are their performances and the more content they are with the fit of the costumes they don.”

But Kahn did not spell it out specifically as ‘bring your whole self to work’. That was done by Mike Robbins, in his 2015 TEDxBerkeley talk, aptly titled, ‘Bring your whole self to work’. Mike followed it up with a book of the same title (Bring Your Whole Self to Work: How Vulnerability Unlocks Creativity, Connection, and Performance).

Consider how companies have used this theme.

ING, the Dutch multinational banking and financial services company, proudly announces in the careers section of its website: “At ING we encourage you to bring your whole self to work”.

To showcase that they really mean what they say, there are several stories from employees about their personal background, experiences, difficult life situations, and so on, and how the organization made them feel welcome. So Pieter spoke about his stuttering, Sophie spoke about her gender change, Silvia spoke about her dual cultural identity, Manoj spoke about his son who was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and so on.

Quite a few companies now use this phrase on their careers page. At least one company has the perfect reason to use that phrase, though: Whole Foods (they say, “Leave your suit at home. Bring your whole self to work“) 🙂

The operating premise behind that phrase is built around inclusion and diversity. To put it simply, the phrase asks employees to be themselves, the way they’d be at their homes, and let that authentic self propel the quality of their work.

The reason why I’m venturing into a territory—human resources—that I rarely write about (I’d write about employee engagement since that is about communication, which is my domain) is because this multiple-selves model is something I actively use and teach in my personal branding workshops.

Just think of what you imagine LinkedIn to be about. Going beyond the joke that LinkedIn has become like Facebook where people share about their morning walk, kids’ homework, and the kind of music they listen to, LinkedIn is generally presumed to be all-things-work. But LinkedIn itself is gradually trying to push to write about more than work – they actively ask people to discuss mental health, hobbies, personal experiences, and so on.

That’s quite a direct reflection of how offices are evolving by using the ‘bring your whole self to work’ mantra.

The connection with personal branding is something I explain using the ‘house with the 100 windows’ analogy.

The premise is this:
– Imagine you live in a house with 100 windows.
– Your personal branding effort on social media need not be that you open all 100 windows to the world to see who you are, and the way you are.
– You just need to open 5-6 specific windows through which the world can see very select facets about you.
– Does that mean you are being inauthentic? Of course not!
– You are simply being selective in opening up to the world and that’s entirely your prerogative, based on your privacy.
– The world that sees you through these 5 windows would form a perception of you.
– But the people who live with you, know the full, authentic you – all 100 windows open since they are inside the house.
– You could also open select windows to specific interests with specific groups of people. For example, you could be sharing your interest in an obscure topic on a subreddit, or on a Facebook Group. This may not be a part of your Twitter content, and that’s ok.

We already wear such chosen hats in many spheres of our lives. At the school/college, we are casual and/or studious. When we are with our kids, we are extra patient and playful. When we are at work, we tend to be professional. When we are playing, we are competitive. A lot of our chosen roles seep into other types of activity. For example, we could bring that competitive streak when we are with siblings, even though we are not strictly competing with them. We may expect a certain professional etiquette from people in our family even though that may seem completely unwarranted to them.

The ‘bring your whole self to work’ is a call to let our ‘authentic self’ power our work too, at the workplace. But this is easier said than done and is also fraught with adequate pitfalls.

For instance, expressing your liking for pets, at work, is usually a well-liked trait. But what if you cannot stand cats and dogs, or animals, in general?

Or, what if you cannot really indulge in small-talk at work and have a general disdain for people, even though you are incredibly good at the actual work you are being underpaid for? Such a script wouldn’t fly past HR and the employee would be treated as an anomaly who needs to work on people skills.

For every personal story of sadness or grit that you may bring to the workplace, you’d realize that everyone else is living with their own stories. Knowing those stories would no doubt help us see each other as humans with very similar lives/outlook, but that need not be a prerequisite to working with each other. They can be great ice-breakers to build empathy, but we are not really at the workplace to expand our families – it’s a workplace after all, away from the family. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in imagining that our workplace is our extended family, but do not expect that to be reciprocated by every single employee or even the employer.

There is a professional self that is—and can be—different from your authentic/whole self.

The professional self would spend more time than needed at the office to finish an important task even as your authentic self would simply want to leave the office early, and head to a movie theater to unwind. The former is called being responsible and the latter, is being irresponsible (towards work).

The professional self may tolerate loud, vacuous colleagues, but your authentic/whole self may simply tell them to take a hike till HR comes to intervene and offer pearls of corporate wisdom for a cohesive workplace.

To be sure, your need to be ‘whole’ or ‘authentic’ at work would come with a LOT of fine print. In fact, what companies mean when they ask you to bring your whole self is that the workplace is open for all kinds of people, without bias or prejudice. But while that can be a corporate motto, it needs to be followed by all employees and executed by a process by the organization. That’s easier said than done. We have seen way too many organizations try them to various degrees and just give up when things seem stretched beyond what they think they can handle. Netflix is a good, recent example. See: If you don’t like our content, you can quit

And this ‘whole self’ theme literally comes apart when you consider how deeply divided we are, as a species, over the kind of politics we choose to see the world through. Whether in the US or in India, the kind of vehemence people see those who don’t share their political views is something we have all experienced.

The lines between ‘bring your whole self to work’ and personal branding criss-cross often given how people mistake the latter to be ‘being authentic on social media’. I have already written about that part: you do not need to be your 100% authentic self on social media for the purpose of building a personal brand. You need to be authentic only within the scope of the topics you choose to talk about on social media towards building a personal brand. More on that: Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media?

The same may work for the workplace too. We need not bring our whole selves to work. We could bring our best work selves to work and leave the whole to the people we live with.

Cover pic courtesy: HBR.