And why you really should not bring it to work
A phrase that first became fashionable a decade ago is everywhere. “Bring your whole self” is one of four values that British Land, a property developer, trumpets on its website. Quartz, a publisher, ran a workshop last year called “How to navigate the whole-self workplace”. “Your whole self is welcome here,” pledges ING, a bank, to prospective employees. (Whole Foods uses the phrase on its global careers site, too, but it has a decent excuse.)
There are spin-off selves. Workday, an enterprise-software firm, wants its employees to be their “best selves” at work. Finn, a classified-ads site in Norway, is hiring for a compensation and benefits specialist who loves to bring their “full self” to the office. Key, an American bank, prefers to use the term “authentic self”. The idea that unites these phrases is that employees need not pretend to be someone they aren’t. Instead of having a workplace persona and a non-workplace persona, people can just relax and always be themselves.
Behind this thought lies a good intention – or rather lots of good intentions. The notion of the whole self variously captures the idea that people are more engaged in work if they believe in a firm’s purpose; that teams are more effective if colleagues understand each other; that people with different identities should feel comfortable in their own skins; that firms should care about and respond to issues that affect their staff’s well-being, from mental health to child care; and that leaders need to show some of their personal side to be connected with their staff.
None of these things is silly. Many are in fact actively desirable. However, any idea that covers so much ground is bound to have holes in it, and this one would make a colander blush.
Most obviously, no one should actually bring their whole selves to work. People are a melange of traits, some good and some bad. Many of them should be kept well away from the workplace. Your professional self displays commitment to the job and eats lunch at a desk. Your whole self is planning the next holiday and binges ice cream on the sofa. Your professional self makes presentations to the board and says things like: “Let’s get the analytics team to kick the tyres on this.” Your whole self cannot operate a toaster and says things like: “Has anyone seen my socks?” Pretending to be someone you are not is not a problem; it’s essential.
For the same reasons, your employer may say it wants you to bring your whole self to work but doesn’t really mean it. A company is a hierarchy, in which even the most understanding bosses expect people to follow orders rather than their hearts. Say something that causes your firm embarrassment, as a senior HSBC executive did last month by making fun of apocalyptic warnings about climate change, and you will end up being disowned rather than lauded for authenticity. This column is named for a short story by Herman Melville, in which the eponymous character speaks his own truth by saying “I would prefer not to” to every single request made of him by his manager. He ends up dead.
Any job that involves a uniform is, by definition, asking employees to subsume their personalities, not express them. When times are tough or performance is shoddy, an employee is an individual second and a line item in the budget first. If the circumstances require it, he will be asked to leave and take his whole self with him.
As a result, the bringing of whole selves is carefully circumscribed. Candidates for jobs typically feel obliged to tell interviewers a few things about themselves in order to show that they are rounded human beings. Without fail those things are along the lines of “I have a dog called Casaubon, run a local food bank and love to go sea kayaking.” They are never “I hate animals, exercise and my fellow humans.”
Lots of executives, too, deal in whole-selfery of a very synthetic kind. As a rule of thumb, if you are taking advice on how to be authentic, you are not being authentic. And if you are scheduling meetings in order to display vulnerability, you are mainly showing controlled cunning.
One of the attractions of the workplace is that it is a place where there is a shared endeavour. That endeavour is called “work”. You need to be friendly to be a good colleague, but you don’t need to be friends. You need to be capable of empathy, but you don’t need to constantly emote. You have to turn up, try hard and play your part. You have to bring your role self.