What does bringing your whole self to work actually mean, and why does it matter?

Is holding back vulnerability a good thing in the workplace or not? Some business leaders implore employees to hang up any personal problems at the door when they come to work. It’s only OK to be professional, competent and successful at work. This type of boss thinks any emotional vulnerability should be taken back home and expressed in private.

Many people have a different persona in the workplace than they do at home. But if we don’t really know each other at work, how can we truly connect and support one another? If we don’t bring our whole selves to work, are we doing ourselves damage? And what effect is this having on our happiness and productivity in the workplace?

In this blog I’d like to explore what bringing the whole self to work actually means and why business leaders who don’t embrace the idea could be missing out on business innovation and ultimately success.

What does ‘bringing your whole self to work’ mean?

Bringing your whole self to work means showing up warts and all, not suppressing vulnerability for the sake of the boss and to spare embarrassment when things get a little messy. It is about respecting authenticity and not seeing vulnerability as a weakness. Not bringing your whole self to work feels a tad, stiff-upper-lip 1950s British!

So, is bringing your whole self to work a good thing or not? I think it’s important to clarify what bringing your whole self to work really means. Let’s start with what it isn’t. It doesn’t mean you show up and spend the day telling the whole office about all of your personal problems. But, it does mean that when you are having a hard time outside of work, you feel you can be open and honest about how that may be affecting you at work.

Perhaps you need to adjust your hours while you cope with a relative who is ill, or you need to have a flexible start time to do the school drop-off because you have separated from your partner. There are hundreds of reasons why your life may be going through a difficult phase.

It’s pretty obvious that worry and stress outside of work can’t just be switched off when you get to work (no matter how hard you try). It’s highly likely you won’t be performing your best at work during a time of personal stress. If colleagues don’t understand why you are struggling, how can they empathise?

Bringing your whole self to work means being able to admit when things are tough. Mike Robbins, thought leader and author, said in an interview for Forbes,

“When we don’t bring our whole selves to work we suffer – lack of engagement, lack of productivity, and our well-being is diminished.  We aren’t able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the “right” thing.  For teams and organizations, this lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for the group or company to thrive and perform at their highest level because people are holding back some of who they really are.”

How bringing the whole self to work supports innovation

Everyone has aspects of themselves they feel a little uncomfortable about and there will always be parts of ourselves we don’t want to bring to work. But things like holding back tears when we feel upset because we don’t want to appear weak, or suppressing anger and resentment when a colleague gets a promotion we wanted can impact heavily on mental well-being.

This fear around psychological safety also discourages us from taking risks. Google’s project Aristotle involved extensive research on how to build the perfect team. Their findings?  Initially Google researchers found it hard to figure out, but then they encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers. Clear goals and a culture of dependability were also found to be important, but psychological safety was the most important takeaway when it came to building the perfect team.

Robbins summarises this concept perfectly:

“I think we spend and waste so much time and energy trying to “have it all together” that if we spent a little more time telling the truth, we could be free, we could heal, we could change, and we could connect with others in a more real and genuine way.”

Pushing ideas forward is much more difficult when there isn’t a culture of openness and trust. Innovation relies on people pushing boundaries. To do this most people need to feel psychologically safe. We don’t need to pour our hearts out to each other to bring our whole selves to work, but we need to feel safe to express our opinions and be who we are. That is where true innovation begins.

Join the #engagementevolution - receive newsletters and employee engagement whitepapers and webinar invites direct to your inbox.