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As we step into our professional roles to begin the workday, we often feel like we have to step outside of ourselves. Or maybe we deliberately leave key parts of ourselves behind, treating those aspects of ourselves like dirty socks, balled up behind the door, or a loyal dog, eagerly awaiting our return.
We tell ourselves that it’s time to hit the “off” switch on our authentic selves. We show the polished sides of our personalities, buttoned-up or carefully curated, and shut down the playful ones. It’s called “work,” after all — isn’t that what we’re expected to do?
Instead of bringing our whole self to work, we bring a different version. It seems normal because everyone else we know seems to be doing the same thing.
When we do this, we create a compromised workspace for ourselves, our coworkers, and our managers. This environment then promotes lower levels of creative thinking, performance, and social connection. Only when we bring our whole selves to work will we thrive as a person and a professional.
What does it mean to “bring your whole self to work”?
Bringing your whole self to work means being authentic. That means acknowledging your personality, including the quirky bits, and bringing your interests, hopes, dreams, and even fears with you, even if they don’t seem relevant to your work. The reality is that you are bringing all that with you anyhow — it’s better to acknowledge it and have the opportunity to be more of your best self at work. In addition, when you value your own experiences, challenges, and unique perspective instead of burying them, you may discover that they are more relevant to your work than you thought.
Bringing your whole self doesn’t mean that you have no filter, that you have to reveal personal details to your team, or that you behave in the exact way that you would in the privacy of your own home or when hanging out with close friends. What it does mean is that the “you at work” should also be recognizable to and coherent with the “you at home.” There shouldn’t be a personality change — if you’re enthusiastic and outgoing at home, that’s how your coworkers should know you, too. It enables us to show ourselves, our coworkers, and managers who we are, not just what we do.
By bringing our whole selves to work, we go beyond our comfort zone. When we dare to be vulnerable and original, we become more resilient, adaptable, and driven. We open ourselves to essential human experiences where our personal life and work life complement each other. It creates an opening for others to bring more of themselves as well.
Should you bring your whole self to work?
We’re able to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally when our work persona and home persona are the same.
Being our genuine selves enables us to perform better. We are more connected to, and supported by, our coworkers. We are more comfortable taking risks and making creative decisions. In turn, we become more innovative and create a collaborative, open-minded environment. We approach tasks with optimism, excitement, and a renewed sense of intellectual curiosity.
Maintaining two separate selves is exhausting, even more so if we have to actively hide parts of ourselves. If we separate our emotions and attitudes from work tasks, we risk becoming detached on the job. Our past achievements can not become meaningful and our drive to achieve more is minimal. We risk burnout.
Employees in this emotional state are physically present but mentally checked out. During periods of burnout, people tend to feel unmotivated, purposeless, and lonely. They consider tasks to be tedious chores, not engaging learning experiences. When we approach our jobs authentically, our work contributes to our positive well-being. Our mental fitness thrives.
How can you bring your whole self to work?
Bringing your whole self to work triggers the common fear to go all in, open up, and be yourself. We think: “What if I’m too ____?” We worry our coworkers may consider our whole selves unlikeable, messy, or complicated. We can overcome this hesitation by accepting the uncomfortableness of exposing some vulnerability and starting to take risks (even small ones) to show ourselves.
We can embrace vulnerability when we perceive it as a sign of bravery. In her 2012 Ted Talk “Listening to shame,” researcher Brené Brown describes vulnerability as an "emotional risk.” Being vulnerable at work means having the courage to approach tasks in a genuine way. It enables us to tackle challenges with passion, ingenuity, and resilience.
We can become risk-takers by creating psychological safety in our organizations. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is comfort in making a mistake at work. It’s a sense of security that comes from knowing the risks we take will not only be accepted but also appreciated. Psychological safety has been shown to facilitate creativity, motivation, trust, open-mindedness, and humor amongst teams at work. It enables us to embrace our whole selves and feel comfort in knowing others will too.
Bringing your whole self to work is not something that occurs overnight. It requires small steps of courage at every level of your organization, not just within the executive leadership team. It begins with team leaders and managers investing in unconventional ideas they believe in. These thought leaders inspire their team members to be individualistic and innovative. They reconstruct office norms of belonging and inclusion and increase employee engagement. These leaders also create purpose-driven workplace cultures and build deliberately developmental organizations (DDOs).
Micheal Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, authors of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, discuss DDOs. These companies consider workers’ vulnerability and authenticity key components to organizational success.
An Everyone Culture gives examples of three DDOs — Next Jump, Bridgewater Associates, and Decurion Corporation — that created authentic company cultures.
Each Bridgewater employee has a baseball card. This digital progress report reveals their strengths and opportunities for growth. The holistic assessment incorporates peer reviews, recommendations, personality assessments, and feedback from managers. Bridgewater baseball cards reflect new achievements and current challenges. These cards highlight previous setbacks. They enable employees to improve by recognizing failures as opportunities for growth.
Like Bridgewater, Next Jump considers personal reflection a core component of professional growth. One of Next Jump’s guiding principles is to view character as “a muscle.” The company recognizes its workers will thrive professionally when their attitudes are acknowledged. Next Jump's culture is a safe space for emotional regulation, vulnerability, and empathy. The DDO’s human resources foster emotional intelligence at work.
Decurion holds company-wide seminars to encourage compassion and belonging at the organizational level. During these forums, employees discuss new opportunities for increased mental fitness at work. Current Decurion practices include fishbowl conversations and feedback sessions to improve workers’ mental fitness. Both of these initiatives create open conversations around workers’ whole selves. They ensure workers' well-being is part of professional development discussions.
An Everyone Culture reveals how the DDO framework can apply to any organization. The solution is to create organizational goals that align with people’s motivation to evolve at work. These goals must also address people’s need to feel supported by management in taking risks. They encourage holistic employee experiences empowering workers to be vulnerable, playful, and imaginative.
7 recommendations for bringing your whole self to work
Here are 7 recommendations for bringing your whole self to work and inspiring others to do the same:
Take BetterUp’s Whole Person Model
To bring our whole selves to work, we have to understand who we are and who we would like to become. BetterUp’s Whole Person Model aims to do exactly this. This self-assessment model helps surface our strengths and shows how our emotions and attitudes influence our work performance. They can support us in reaching goals and achieving higher levels of performance. With the model as a guide, we can start to better understand the ways our behaviors and mindsets related to well-being are interconnected with our behaviors and mindsets as leaders and employees.
With more self-awareness through BetterUp’s Whole Person Model, we can become more understanding of others and develop new behaviors that create a greater sense of belonging and confidence in our current work environments. We might surface new opportunities — policies, projects, meetings, forums, and activities — to create a more open, original, inclusive organization and workforce at large.
Conduct daily check-ins
Make self-awareness part of your daily routine. Take 5 to 10 minutes in the morning or evening outside of work hours to ask yourself:
- “What was the highlight of my day?”
- “What do I want to be more intentional about tomorrow?”
Jot down your responses in a journal or notebook so you can look back at them and celebrate your progress.
Explore life planning
Design a life plan. Map out your long-term personal and professional goals. Create interim checkpoints to ensure you’re on track to achieve these goals. Life plans are a great way to practice intentionality, authenticity, and self-awareness.
Create a “Win of the Week” bulletin board
Encourage your team members to bring their true selves to work. Showcase their risks at the beginning or end of every workweek. Celebrate coworkers' new, promising ideas as “wins of the week." These shoutouts inspire others to pitch new ideas and share their visions. They provide team members with positive recognition and highlight the power of appreciation.
Make authenticity fun and interactive for the whole team
Get your team excited and energized about bringing their genuine selves to work. Use team-building exercises to create norms of psychological safety, trust, and inclusion. Fun examples of teamwork include scavenger hunts and escape room games. Try a trip to an adventure course for ropes climbing and ziplining, if you’re feeling bold.
Begin guided readings
Learn more about organizations enabling workers to be their true selves. Start by creating team-level or company-wide reading lists. These can include books, articles, and case studies you have already read or hope to dive into. The content can highlight workforce cultures that emphasize authenticity. It can discuss interests, issues, and concerns people attempting to be their whole selves at work have.
Readings about how other employees and teams have overcome challenges can inspire your team to embrace authenticity at work. Organize a suggested reading schedule with weekly or monthly time-markers. This will help workers stay engaged with the reading material without feeling overwhelmed. You can also create an online discussion board or forum. This provides a space for everyone to share their thoughts, questions, and suggestions.
Organize an annual Idea Pitch
Proposing new ideas can be intimidating. Reduce the pressure around public speaking by making idea pitches part of your company culture. As part of their annual or quarterly review, each employee can identify a challenge. It can relate to product design, organizational policy, or strategic operations. After discussing the obstacle, they can pitch a solution. These pitches will promote individuality and freedom of expression. They help vulnerability become a core value of your company. Risk-taking will not only be encouraged, it will also be expected.
Bringing our whole selves to work means approaching our jobs with a sense of playfulness, fully aware of our own (and everyone else’s) flawed humanness. It means daring to be distinct. There is no single prototype for what authenticity should look like in the workforce. Instead, authenticity provides us with the opportunity to be vulnerable, curious, and intentional in our own way. When we leverage this opportunity, we become our bravest and boldest selves at work. As our organizations develop and evolve, so do we.
Sydnie Kupferberg is a content marketing intern at BetterUp.