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Don’t Bring Your Whole Self to Work


I get nervous when I hear organizations promoting some nice-sounding but vague concept such as "Bring your whole self to work". I know there will be a catch and I wish organizations would be upfront as to what the catch is.

So, what is the catch in this case?

The catch is that organizations don’t really mean it when they say, “Bring your whole self to work”. What they mean is that they want you to feel good about the workplace and perhaps be able to show some personality, but within strict limits. In fact, they want you to show professionalism at all times, and to some extent, professionalism is about suppressing your "whole self" and instead being what the role requires.

The notion that professionalism can be at odds with bringing your whole self to work was brought to my attention by a former navy officer. He said that the first thing the navy does in onboarding is to intentionally drive out all aspects of individual personality. They want you to be an absolutely professional sailor who will do what needs to be done without question. They don’t want an interesting crew of unique individuals; they want a totally reliable team that will be effective in life and death situations. If you think of a professional butler, surgeon, or pilot you don’t necessarily want them bringing their whole self—with all their quirks, personal problems, and insecurities—to work.

Netflix recently made the news by explicitly telling employees not to bring their personal political selves to work. Netflix told employees who don’t like the company’s decisions on programming to quit. Similarly, a major North American retailer has long had "no soliciting" as part of the code of conduct. In part, this means don't bring your personal projects—like selling raffle tickets for your school, promoting a social cause that is dear to you, or drumming up votes for a political candidate—to work. Yes, both Netflix and the retailer allow you to bring some personality to work, just not your whole self.

Another angle on this comes from research by Deeper Signals. They write “Using the Core Drivers Diagnostic, our research has found that the greater the proportion of emotionally volatile people on a team, the lower that team's social cohesion. That's because passionate team members feel things more acutely and show their feelings more. This can be wearing to live with, and moods are also known to be contagious! On the other hand, teams that are more considerate and disciplined are more emotionally resilient, focused and stable.”

If universities, or some new institutions, took assessment seriously, then they could pay attention to a student’s interim scores and tune their learning to build on their strengths and correct any important weaknesses. This kind of personalized learning program is possible, it’s just that universities are not set up to deliver it.

What HR leaders should do

The pitfalls of telling employees to bring their whole selves to work is the kind of problem HR leaders face all the time. HR is always about nuance. We have to be careful presenting some simplistic message just because it sounds nice. In the case of bringing your whole self to work the message has to include the expectation that this can only occur within the limits of being a true professional at all times. HR leaders should be a champion of nuance and a champion of communication that tells the truth. A business is first and foremost a business; people who don't recognize this are not people you want to hire.


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