In recent years, employees have increasingly expressed that they want the freedom to be themselves at work, and it’s no wonder why. Maintaining the image of our “work selves” is killing us. Wise professionals consider that the outfit we wear on Halloween can end up on social media in front of a recruiter, or that the things we say in a taxi can go indelibly viral, to be evermore connected to our name via Google search. When work is always watching, it’s difficult to turn fully off and be ourselves. The pressure is enormous and drives us away from human connection and towards depression and unfulfillment.
However, we still shouldn’t “bring our whole selves to work” because it’s simply impractical. In an organization where there are inherent power dynamics, you cannot give everyone license to be equally authentic at all times and still maintain the functional relationships you need to get work done.
Most people spend years of their young lives dating, searching for just one person with whom they can show their whole selves, their unedited opinions, and their unique view. Not everyone finds that person. And even out of those who do, 40% eventually end up divorced! Finding harmony with another with a full level of intimacy and acceptance between you is so rare that not everyone experiences it in their lifetime. And yet we think we can walk into an office building full of dozens of people that we did not choose for ourselves … and expect everyone to accept every facet of each other? All with our ability to pay for food and shelter on the line. How could we possibly get anything done?
At work, we need to build trust with each other to the level where we can share opinions, tell hard truths, and make decisions together. But if we knew each of our coworkers as well as we know our spouse, would we trust them? Maybe. However, when I recall that the most destructive and voracious partier of all my college friends became a heart surgeon, it often spurs me not to skip my daily workout. I know he got top grades in medical school, but I’m not sure I ever want to end up on his operating table. If he were your doctor, would you want to hear what I know? If you didn’t, I wouldn’t blame you. Sometimes we need a little willful ignorance to get us through the day.
In addition, we can only engage in authenticity when it’s done freely. In friendships and personal relationships, when someone else’s authentic self doesn’t work companionably with ours, we can walk away or limit interactions with few hard feelings and no financial or career consequences. At work, we don’t have that luxury.
The right level of personal intimacy in the workplace is the highest common denominator of what we need in order to engage in work-related collaboration and conflict, and where everyone involved can equally participate given the power dynamic. This means that intimacy is okay, as long as it’s related to work, the other person has given permission, or the other person has the ability to opt out.
Here are some examples where well-meaning colleagues do more harm than good:
- A mixed-level team often talks about politics during meetings. The assistant in the room often disagrees, but she is afraid to participate in the conversation because she is afraid to lose her job. Over time, she feels alienated by her team.
If the team saved these conversations for lunch or happy hour, the assistant could leave the room if she wanted to.
- In an attempt to show personal interest in a team member, a manager often asks a junior about his relationship with his fiancé. In fact, the junior is considering ending the relationship, and work is the only place where he can take his mind off of the stress. He knows his manager would stop if he asks, but he can’t even talk about it without crying. He will never let his manager see him like that.
If the manager asked more open-ended questions, such as “What’s new outside of work?” his team member could raise the topics he feels comfortable talking about.
- Colleagues share the charities they support on the weekends, and it helps them to know each other better. However, they often push others to contribute as well. A team member finds it difficult to say no without sharing more of her political views than she sfeels comfortable.
If colleagues just shared their charity and contact information for donating, those who wish to engage in further conversation will feel free to do that.
We shouldn’t bring our whole selves to work because it’s extremely likely that being more of ourselves requires others to be less of themselves. If we want to increase the level of personal authenticity or intimacy in our work relationships and lessen the burden of maintaining a façade of perfection, we need to be mindful of what we need in order to work together, and where we should stop.
Maintaining those healthy boundaries is the key to finding balance between our “work selves” and our “whole selves.”