What Does “Bring Your Whole Self to Work” Really Mean?

Many of us are limited by our work personas and wish we could be more authentic with our colleagues. Increasingly, we hear people advocate for bringing "our whole self" to work, but what are the limits of that advice and when is authenticity actually damaging to a team?

We’ve all heard that bringing your whole self to work has many benefits: fostering more innovation, more trust, lower stress, and more cohesive teams. But some circles have taken this authenticity mandate to absurd levels that backfire on the organization. Bringing your whole self really means that in your organization, you are treated like a human being. You are not a nameless node in a network designed to deliver maximum value—you are a person with a heart, a body, and a family.

Authenticity means that people don’t feel they have to leave their life at the office door in order to be seen as a productive worker and leader. People can contribute from both their minds and hearts, and demote work when they need to take care of their bodies and the people close to them. Being an authentic leader brings another layer: having your actions match your words. What you say signals how you will actually act when the chips are down.  

Authenticity doesn’t mean giving voice to every thought and reaction that blossoms in your consciousness. And bringing your whole self doesn’t mean letting your freak flag fly with every single one of your identities in the workplace. That may sound desirable, but few minorities expect that bringing their whole selves in that manner will ever be a workable idea.

Authenticity is revealed through expressive communication—that is, speech that conveys a positive or negative emotion. Revealing emotions makes you more charismatic, and helps people better predict what you’re going to do, which people find comforting. But if everything out of your mouth is expressive, it may not leave room for other people to be themselves—especially if you are communicating a lot of negativity.

People communicate negativity for several reasons, the first of which is because it’s a true reflection of their interior thoughts. But surprisingly, another reason is that it’s an easy way to bond with others—who hasn’t bonded with someone by righteously and hilariously complaining about a situation you both face?

Unfortunately, this isn’t true leadership behavior. Who’s the most sarcastic group? Teenagers. They’re exquisitely tuned to everything that’s wrong with the world, but largely powerless to affect it—sarcasm is one of their few tools of protest. But if you do have the ability to influence the situation, using irony and sarcasm are too easily made an excuse for not taking action.

Sarcasm isn’t all bad, of course. It can make negative feedback go down easier as it’s less confrontational. And it can make people think more creatively: the extra cognitive load from deciphering meanings that are the opposite of their intention tends to elevate the level of discourse. However, thinking is not the same as acting, and a culture that uses a lot of sarcasm and irony also tends to keep people from acting on their more creative thoughts.

Here’s how to introduce more authenticity on your teams, without it backfiring:

  • Check your language. Are you sharing judgements in order to bond? Priceless bon mots they may be, but such joking can make people feel reluctant to reveal their true selves in your presence, since they will assume you will make fun of them to others the way you criticize others in front of them.
  • Tell stories. We often try to communicate who we are by assigning labels or listing resume items, but nothing connects us as well as stories. Stories reveal your values and the way your mind works—the very things that build trust. Get to know your colleagues by asking them about a time when…  
  • Don’t force authenticity. People need to trust you before they can share authentically—even something seemingly innocuous, like weekend plans. If you suddenly start requiring personal shares in a low-trust environment, it will lower trust even further. To foster authenticity, start small and light, share your own first, and let people opt in. Give everyone an option to “pass” without social penalty.
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What Does “Bring Your Whole Self to Work” Really Mean?
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