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Bring Your Whole Self to Work

Who showed up at the office today?   What it means to bring your “whole self to work” and what it takes to get there.

The Premise:

Some of us started our careers under strict guidelines – both written and unwritten- of what should happen once we walked into our places of employment.    Keeping work and home life separate was the norm.  Rallying to the top of your game at work was the expectation regardless of what sacrifices that entailed.   We hire human beings, but then expect all the humanness to be extracted from the workplace.  Even in today’s untethered work environment, many of the assumptions about how to act, what to say, and who we are at work still undermine our productivity.   Although I love the “Gig” economy, it also can exacerbate the problem, isolating us behind devices and creating a hunger for community.

The concept of “bring your whole self to work” creates an opportunity to bring old and current assumptions to the forefront and challenge them.  Pretending that you are “just at work” isn’t realistic.  To do so actually creates negative energy that holds us back.   In actuality, we are made of up ALL our experiences which form our perceptions and opinions that stay with us in all facets of life.

Today I lead with this concept as a guidepost and I invite you to hear my story at the talk I gave at Hult International Business School and to read on to find out how we can all benefit from sharing our whole-selves in the workplace.

Breaking down Barriers| Adjusting the Pressure Valve

Leaders who want to adopt this approach have to recognize that employees may initially be uncomfortable with this concept if they have come from a different type of environment at work or even at home.   They may feel threatened or fearful based on prior experience or hearsay from fellow professionals.  A “whole self” approach triggers a lifetime of belief systems, conditioning, and perceptions that may not be readily understood by those around us.    The common, fear-driven reaction is to “fit in” and conform to false standards rather than risk opening and sharing our authentic self.

Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization and is estimated to cost American businesses up to $300 billion a year, as reported by Business News Daily in 2012. More recently, the Korn Ferry study (October 2018) went further behind the curtain.  The survey of nearly 2,000 professionals of all levels was more revealing, stating, “More than three-quarters of the respondents, 76%, say stress at work has had a negative impact on their personal relationships, and 66% say they have lost sleep due to work stress. A small but significant number, 16%, say they’ve had to quit a job due to stress.”  To drive it home, the survey also revealed that “bosses” are the largest source of the stress.

Organizations that encourage a “whole self” approach turn stifling, negative energy and stress into a positive force that fosters personal growth and good mental health.  Sharing who we are authentically, wholly, and sometimes vulnerably creates space for new voices, differing points of view, and a more fluid work environment.

A Star is Re-Born

Here’s a real world example of this notion to see how it unfolds in the workplace.  We had a new staff member at our firm who was in “prove it” mode.  He soared to the top in the first year, winning all the awards and seemingly a huge success.  An open conversation with him, however, uncovered some harsh realities – his personal battles with who he was, what he valued, and the sad fact that his identity had shifted to be 100% about who he was on the job.  He was isolated and feeling disconnected from the rest of his life. His personal relationships suffered.  He expressed his fears – could he be successful at work AND have thriving relationships? Was this a realistic expectation?

What was needed and what we did was provide a deep communication with a leader in the organization who could help tear down the assumptions about “success” and whose personal experience was relevant for the employee.   The leader also unveiled more about the individual to learn what motivated him to “light up.” Through what was discovered,  he was able to incorporate those things into the workplace – creating new sources of energy for personal and professional fulfillment.  Today he is thriving at work and has fulfilling relationships outside of work as well.

Making it work

Companies old and young can bring this thinking into their culture and Organizational Consciousness.   It does require some rewiring on the part of leaders and the team – effectively it’s a partnership.  Leaders have to focus on:  examining communications (written and verbal); providing tools and conversations that foster self-awareness; and provide opportunities for individuals to discover things that “light them up” – unleash their personal gifts, creativity, and growth that will translate into innovation in the workplace.

Leaders must also focus on uncovering and if necessary, disabling the UNWRITTEN rules that govern employees' fears.  Once the door is open, transparent communication is critical for leaders and employees alike.   If an employee discovers that the leadership cannot absorb who they really are, it’s a good way to assess whether they are in the right place.  Alignment or lack thereof is one of the outcomes of this exercise.

At the Hollister Institute, we provide the tools and expertise to enable the “Whole Self” environment.  Our goal is to uncover what’s not shared and to speak to the unspoken.  Through authentic conversation, we identify the root cause of misalignment and challenge leaders to lead authentically and walk away from fear-based systems.