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Why It’s a Bad Idea to Bring Your Whole Self to Work

The case for being your "best self" at work, rather than your "whole self."

Jashua Coleman/Unsplash
Source: Jashua Coleman/Unsplash

“If you’re looking for a firm with a strong team connection where you can be your whole self…”

“We welcome all, and seek talented individuals who can bring their whole self to work…”

“We appreciate different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives—encouraging everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.”

“We cultivate a community of playful personalities that thrive in a fast-paced environment where our employees can be their most authentic selves.”

These quotes are from recent job postings at well-known companies. They reflect a powerful trend in current thinking about the kind of environment that talented employees are seeking. They also imply that this kind of environment will bring out the best in their people.

This wording may be useful from a marketing perspective. But let me tell you, as guidance for getting ahead and moving into a leadership role, it’s dead wrong.

Look, I get it. There is a long history of work environments stifling people by insisting that they have to hide who they really are. Gay people having to pretend to be straight. Women told to act like men. Black people conforming to white norms. Parents pretending their children were nonexistent or unimportant. And old people—heck, we’re still trying to fool people into thinking we’re a decade younger than we really are. All of this is toxic, it’s prejudiced, and it diminishes both employee engagement and productivity.

But, honestly, your whole self does not belong in the workplace. My point of view is that in the workplace, we are there to work. All the parts of ourselves that enable us to get the job done with efficiency and excellence, both through our own work and by leading others, belong in the workplace. And the rest of who we are should stay home.

How "Bring Your Whole Self to Work" Can Easily Backfire

What parts of us don’t belong in the workplace? Here are some examples:

  • My sexual feelings for co-workers. Sooner or later, just about everyone finds a co-worker sexually attractive. It’s a very good idea to keep those thoughts to yourself.
  • My strong political or religious beliefs. Most of us have opinions and views—work is not the place to challenge these.
  • My fears and self-doubts. Certainly, there is a time and place for sharing your anxieties at work with a trusted colleague. But be careful. Too much sharing can work against you at your next performance evaluation. And if you’re a leader, too much sharing can undermine your team’s confidence in you and even in the company.
  • My boredom and laziness. There are lots of times when the work is tedious or uninspiring. But you’re being paid to work, so give yourself a brief break and get on with it.
  • My habit of using vulgar language. This depends on the workplace culture, but “cuss words” don’t play well in most professional environments. Learn to check yourself.
  • My enjoyment of large quantities of alcohol and other mind-altering substances. Unless you work in a very unusual environment—enough said.

I’m writing this with a light-hearted tone, but the truth is that this is a serious issue. I have coached a number of senior leaders who brought inappropriate parts of themselves into the workplace and suffered very negative consequences. I think it is dishonest for employers to pretend they want us to bring our whole selves to work.

Here’s the secret: Don’t bring your whole self to work. Bring your best self to work. And encourage your people to do the same. That’s the key to harmonious relationships, top-quality work, and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

More from Gail Golden MBA, Ph.D.
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