There are those who say bringing your whole self to work is the answer to developing an inclusive work environment and to creating a sense of belonging.
There are others who say, if you bring your whole self to work you’re likely to step on someone else’s right to bring their whole self to work.
How to reconcile these opposing views
Bringing your whole self to work is important. We don’t want a work environment where a mother has to pretend she has no children, or older people have to pretend they’re younger. We don’t want a work environment where queer people have to disguise the gender or name of their partners and where black people have to look, talk, or dress like white people do. This is covering and covering is not only bad for us as human beings, but also for our professional contribution.
When we talk about bringing our whole self to work, what we mean is understanding our personal values; recognising what’s important to us, what motivates us, our preferred working style and how all this can clash with someone else’s personal values.
Understanding this is one thing but how do we know where to draw that line between my personal values and those of others or, indeed, those of the company?
One way to address this is – as some suggest – to separate out the ‘personal’ whole self and the ‘professional’ whole self. For example, one article suggest that we leave behind our religious beliefs, our sexual attractions to colleagues, our strong political views, our fears and self-doubts – and the list goes on. The problem with this suggestion, however well-intentioned it may be, is that we cannot separate out the one part of who we are from another. If we did, we would be robots. Companies with a culture that demands assimilation forget that they employ human beings, not the Borg.
So my suggestion is hopefully a bit simpler. I propose that we follow 2 rules when we want to bring our whole selves to work:
- Align personal values to those of the organisation, and
- Live and let live.
Align your values
Before we accept any job, we tend to explore what the organisation stands for: its purpose, its vision, its values. It would be rare to take up a position with a company whose values we dislike or disagree with (assuming the company’s values are genuine and well thought out – the topic of a previous post you can read here). If we have done our job, it shouldn’t be that difficult to align our personal values with those of the organisation. In fact, whenever we want to bring our whole self to work, be it our sexuality or political view, we should use the company values as our compass to gauge how welcome this particular aspect of who we are would be in the workplace. If in doubt, leave it out.
In this way, company values are a crucial guide to how much of ourselves we ought to bring to work. As long as we can align ourselves with the values of the company, we should be fine to be ourselves. And on the occasion when personal values heavily clash with those of the organisation, one might have to leave and find work at another company whose values are more closely aligned with one’s own.
Live and let live
This guidance is useful not only in determining how much of ourselves we should be able to share in the workplace, but also as general guidance for a considerate, fulfilled life. It is simply this: enjoy yourself, be yourself and share yourself as much as you like, so long as none of that imposes on the rights of others to do the same.
Here’s an example: your boss works erratic hours. She likes to be at her desk early and sometimes emails you very late at night or on the weekend. You like to keep regular hours and boundaries between work and personal life. But you feel that your boss’ erratic schedule and late-night emails impinge on your preference not to be imposed on outside work hours. What should your boss do? Live and let live.
She should work in a way that suits her best (early mornings, late evenings, weekends, if she likes). She should understand, however, that, while her personal preference works for her, it might not for others and there should be no expectation, therefore, that others will work on a similar schedule. As it is, your boss knows this and clarifies that, while she may send you an email at an unsuitable time, she does not expect you to respond to it until a more convenient time for you (i.e. during your working hours).
So next time you are unsure whether you’re oversharing or overstepping that invisible line ask yourself: (1) will my behaviour be consistent with the culture of the organisation? and (2) will my actions impede on other people’s rights to bring their whole selves to work? and if the answer is ‘yes’, do reconsider.