Do you bring your full self to work? This is a question that I know we are both very interested in because the answer to this question is so often “no” for some many of us, and yet the reasons underlying this answer are so complicated.
I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for some time, but hadn’t committed to do it until I saw Trish McFarlane‘s clever post this weekend titled Embrace the Real You which detailed her journey to the eventual purchase of a minivan. Her post talked about the fact that she had get comfortable with who she was before she could give up her sports car and replace it with a minivan.
I think that you and I would probably both agree that an ideal workplace would be one where people could bring their full self to work. I also think we’d probably both agree that this type of workplace is an idealized pipe dream that doesn’t actually exist. Therein lies the problem. Why is it that workplaces require us to edit, censor and limit what parts of our self we bring along when we show up each day?
One of the things that makes this so utterly complicated is that we, as human beings, are rarely quite sure of what our true self looks like. As Trish outlines in her post, her reluctance with buying a mininvan came from an internal struggle to embrace who she really is. Since this is a common struggle and since we are constantly evolving and changing as people, it could be very difficult for anyone to decide what version of themselves is the real and authentic self that they’d want to showcase to the world if they had such an opportunity. But, let’s put this aside for the time being and talk about what might be going on at work that prevents us from being ourself when we go there.
Here are a few observations about what I see going on in companies that are contributing to this problem.
- We fear conflict. This is why we are trained never to talk about politics, religion or sports at work. These discussions inevitably lead to disagreement and debate, so we are told to just flat out avoid the topic at all cost. So, if you are deeply religious, political or a sports fanatic, keep that to yourself because that would just make others uncomfortable if you talk about this part of yourself.
- We don’t promote weirdos. Intentionally or not, most corporate cultures have strong immune systems that weed out those who are different. In a law firm, it’s the person with pink hair who’s the weirdo. At a creative ad firm, it might be the person who wears a suit to work. If you want to get promoted, you need to fit in. If you stick out, it’s probably going to cost you.
- Companies still think they are in control. For the past fifty or sixty years, conditions within the US workforce have enabled a situation where companies have been able to get away with doing what was in their best interest, often at the expense of their employees. The result is an expectation that to have a job at company A, you must figure out how to fit in at company A–to become a company A man or woman. But, if you decide to move to company B, you need to learn a whole new way of being (talking, dressing, acting, etc.) in order to fit in there. So, the message to employees has long been this: it’s not who you are that matters, it’s how well you can adapt and fit in at our company that really counts.