The Whole Self Fallacy

For the record, I do not believe in bringing your whole self to work. It’s a nice idea but at its core the phrase is kind of like the corporate equivalent of a bumper sticker.

I understand what’s behind it — the quest for inclusiveness, a desire to promote acceptance and tolerance, to facilitate communication and contribution between a company and employees who might not interact at the level they could. But without context it’s just not truthful.

Do we really need everyone to come in and feel free to say and do whatever they want? Absolutely not. If everyone came to work and metaphorically let it all hang out, you’d find out that Susie in accounting’s only real desire is to catch herself a husband. Once that cat’s out of the bag, all of her good work in finance will quickly be forgotten.

You’d also find out that Jack is a misogynist with mommy issues. He will quickly become the target for all manner of litigation based on his well-documented, formerly fair critiques of female direct reports. And Lydia? Once leaders hear her admit that presentations scare her to death, that she gets butterflies in her belly big enough to go up a dress size, her chances of being promoted vanish like fog in the wind. The list goes on.

Those are far out, fictional examples, but the point remains. We don’t need everyone coming in to work and letting their bugaboos and issues cohabitate alongside their skills and abilities. To suggest otherwise not only makes a mockery of professionalism and civility, it’s anathema to what diversity work is really about.

Conceptually, bringing your whole self to work is about feeling free to share personal experiences and diverse perspectives in a professional context. At least, that’s one interpretation. But when people’s little secrets become public, it’s practically impossible to dismiss them. For example, no one will think of coaching poor Lydia or sending her to Toastmasters to hone her presentation skills. They’ll just pick someone else who doesn’t have those foibles, and Lydia’s otherwise high performance record and advanced skill set in other valuable areas will be wasted.

The bring your whole self to work concept isn’t wholly bad, but it requires balance. It’s often dangerous to do anything to an extreme. There has to be a balance between freedom of expression and too much freedom.

Organizations that care about diversity and believe it has business value will want employees to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and ideas for the betterment of the team, the product, the company and their careers. But certain conditions have to be met to ensure this freedom offers reciprocal benefits for the business and the employee.

Let’s start with the organization. Companies have to be culturally dexterous to survive, and any effort to promote inclusion will die a miserable death if companies are not interested in change. Maintaining the status quo would have been the end of organizations like John Deere, whose products have been made obsolete multiple times. But because the company’s culture is agile and welcoming of new perspectives, it has been a viable concern for more than 100 years.

A company’s culture has to be willing to accept the diversity of employees’ ideas and behaviors. Leaders have to be ready and willing to put teeth behind the slogan. Do leaders and the organizational culture support change? Can leaders be verbally challenged? Is the company willing to accept failure? Every idea won’t produce a home run.

Are leaders willing to be uncomfortable? Are they willing to navigate the conflicts that may arise when multiple perspectives convene in the same room? Are they skilled at mining employees’ perspectives and identifying behaviors that may lead to the products and services a diverse global marketplace demands? Is the organization ready to mentor and coach to smooth out any rough edges that may stand in the way of diversity impact?

If the answer to any of these questions is no or is the least bit equivocal, diversity and inclusion are likely not high priorities, and bringing your whole self to work is a moot point.

We have to be careful with slogans. They’re catchy, but diversity needs substance and value, not buzzwords.