Hard-Headed Truths about 'Bringing Your Whole Self to Work'
Being the place where people want to work may feel like nirvana in the Great Resignation. It doesn't have to be.
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The debate about whether employees should "bring their whole selves to work" reminds me of the debates a generation ago about equality for women in the workplace. It's full of myths, half-truths, unchallenged assumptions and misunderstandings. As leaders face gaps in the hiring landscape and a persistently disengaged workforce, it's time to bring courage and clarity to the issue. The business argument in favor of employees bringing their whole selves to work gets more compelling every day.
I know you're tired of wholesale change. Change clarifies what's real from what's imaginary, however, and that's beneficial. The last 18 months of drastic change, for example, brought down a lot of myths like:
- If people work from home, they'll work less (they worked longer).
- Young people are eager to come back to the office (they are less willing than older employees).
- Unemployment is statistically low now so we're getting back to normal (the Great Resignation is changing the balance of power in employees' favor).
What does it mean?
Let's clarify what "bring your whole self to work" means. It's an expansive view of how diverse people work most creatively together. It means being free to present your ideas, questions and insights without fear. It means people can take off the armor of invincibility/perfection/single-mindedness and become vulnerable.
In addition to the evidence that a culture which encourages diversity of all kinds is more productive, innovative, satisfying and profitable, you can think of this as efficient. It takes enormous mental and emotional energy to censor oneself at work. Ask any LGBTQ+ employee who hesitates to talk about their dating life, or any woman executive who has learned not to mention her child's growing pains. Would you ask employees to bring half their creativity to work? Or just that part of their problem-solving skills that you understand because you have them too? That is effectively what a culture does when it rewards conformity.
A non-inclusive company culture is wasteful because it limits the paths to company goals. Psychologist Carol Gilligan observed that men organized social relationships in hierarchies with an emphasis on rights and justice; women organize social relationships in systems of connectedness and responsibility to others. She posited that neither is sufficient to reach full human potential. A healthy culture integrates diverse views and encourages dynamic interplay.
What makes a culture of "whole selves' work?
Are you afraid a "whole selves" promise means anarchy at work, i.e. an "anything goes" attitude? That people will be obnoxious? That fear is grounded in mistrust of the ability of people to manage their social situation. Difficult people will always exist, even in healthy cultures.
The alternative to conformity isn't chaos; it's social support, acceptance and recognition of all the qualities and achievements of the human beings who work in your organization. A diverse workforce means greater innovation and creativity across any business.
In business, what is valued is used. Here are additional operating principles for helping people bring their whole selves to work.
Make values relevant. Diverse employees meet on the common ground of shared organizational values, and those values need to be clear and relevant to the organization's mission. For example, Google's stated philosophy includes, "Democracy on the web works." That has a specific meaning (which Google details), and Google employees with different beliefs about how democracy should work politically or socially can unite around that specific meaning.
Celebrate disrupters. Three temperaments are extra helpful in modeling a "whole self" culture. When I studied women who rose to leadership in traditionally male cultures, their shared attributes included a refusal to be silenced or talked over or censored. They made people uncomfortable in a good way, meaning they pushed the culture forward.
Celebrate collaborators. They might seem the opposite of disruptors, because collaborators emphasize the process of exchanging ideas. True collaborators often see the value in disruptors and bring them the mainstream to work with them.
Celebrate connectors. Employees who actively connect with others, and introduce strangers in the organization to each other, are saying, "You people are valuable just as you are."
Enforce psychological safety. Break the connection between conformity and safety. Point out the concrete results of difference. Have people recognize talents in others. Be aware of gendered or culturally limiting metaphors, such as comparing a work team to a sports team, or declaring one group "pioneers" and another "settlers." Understand and acknowledge unconscious biases.
If you think this is raising a generation of snowflakes, consider that by encouraging people to drop their armor and self-censorship, you are helping them direct their energy to the work that matters. Harnessing that now-wasted energy might be the most important impact you have on your organization.