Photo by Juan Leon, Flickr

I am supposed to bring my whole self to work now…so who am I again?

The notion of bringing your whole self to work (BYWSTW) is noble and one that I deeply endorse. It’s also one that I have struggled with for years, even as I advised, guided, and encouraged others to discover ways they can more consistently show up at their best. An over-achiever and performer, I’ve spent much of my adult life driven toward success and accomplishment. There is nothing wrong with achievement and performance or even the motivation to improve one’s circumstances, but problems arise when these drives negatively impact relationships through insincerity and manipulation, when good never seems quite good enough, and when a life well lived is never as satisfying as the next challenge. It was a process for me to learn that the grandeur and nobility of achievement can quickly devolve to poor self-esteem and the need for external validation to feel adequate.

As a result, I’ve learned to be more authentic myself after acknowledging that it’s possible to help and guide others in areas in which we also need help and guidance. That’s why the ever-expanding coaching community now includes coaches for coaches. We all need guidance, none of us are infallible, and generally, we all strive to be better and to grow.

With that, we need to recognize that the aspect of bringing all of ourselves to work is not some kind of overnight process or some “aha” moment that occurs when leaders and the recently formed D&I council tell us to show up more authentically, speak up, offer dissent, or share ideas. Typically, our first thought in that scenario is, “Well, why don’t you go first and show me you can do it before I trust that I can?” Also, BYWSTW is less risky for a leader who has a disproportionate impact on those they lead and are safer by title and position. Plus, to make it even more confounding, many leaders don’t know what BYWSTW really means yet they’re expected to create an environment in which more people can be their true selves. That’s not a slight: BYWSTW is a mystery to many of us, whether we lead or not. We were not taught in schools or the workplace how to show up more authentically. Our organizations generally don’t spend time defining it. We are generally not offered the resources to empower us to risk ourselves, feel vulnerable, and dig deep to answer questions about our driving forces, our greatest fears, and our everyday insecurities. We often don’t even go there with family members. Yet because it’s now a thing in the workplace, we’re supposed to just do it and be good at it with people we don’t know well in an environment where many leaders don’t genuinely care for the people entrusting them with their livelihood every day. So, how did we get here?

It has only been with the crucial push for more inclusive workforces that the notion of BYWSTW even landed on the workplace radar. And yet, in typical fashion, we glamorize our aspirations and utter the buzzwords even while we’re either ill-equipped or unwilling to do the hard reflective work it takes to understand ourselves before showing up with more of ourselves. In the words of Harvard-based psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (quoted in Tony Schwartz’s The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working), we are “the most over-informed under-reflective people in the history of civilization.”

Another revelation from my achievement crisis is that I am an ever-optimist. My optimism has also led to criticism that I couldn’t be candid with team members about real issues and challenges. With that feedback in mind, I had to learn to become more “realistically optimistic,” a term popularized by Sandra Schneider and broadly defined as hoping, aspiring, even searching for positive meanings in our experiences while also acknowledging and accepting the facts of our current reality.

I am realistically optimistic that we can create more inclusive workforces, which to me involves more people showing up with more of themselves: their desires and fears; their triumphs and tragedies; their strengths and, dare I say, weaknesses. To do that, we need to play the long game and create an authenticity roadmap for something so ambitious, so uncertain, and yet so worthwhile. Here’s how we can start:

Organizations

o Define BYWSTW: Answer these questions with your team, division, or organization in mind:

▪ Which Below The Line™ qualities — i.e.personal/inspirational qualities as opposed to competency/skills-based qualities — do you want your employees to demonstrate at work?

▪ Why are these qualities important to you? What can they offer you in terms of business performance, moral obligation, and culture?

▪ What are examples of people bringing more of themselves to work? How can you break that down to Below the Line™ qualities and behaviors that can be taught, role-modeled, and encouraged?

Leaders

o Get real: Author and thought leader, Mike Robbins wrote a book called, Bring Your Whole Self To Work. In it, he talks about the “authenticity equation,” which he defines as “honesty minus self-righteousness, plus vulnerability.” Getting real is about having the willingness to be honest, the self-awareness to remove our self-righteousness, and the courage to be vulnerable.

o Guide and encourage growth: Balance candor with receptivity — it’s your moral and business obligation.

o Support whole lives: Build trust over time through genuine care and curiosity about people’s whole lives. What will make your people’s jobs easier? What are they struggling with? Can they work more flexibly to meet everyday challenges or even work more effectively? These seeds motivate and inspire BYWSTW.

o Unleash energy: How can you more intentionally meet your employees’ needs for physical renewal and vigor, emotional connection, mental focus, and meaningful work?

o Exhibit compassion: Demonstrate you really care by offering candid, straightforward, and compassionate feedback.

o Show capacity for learning: Demonstrate willingness to take responsibility for missteps and shortcomings.

Individuals

o Advocate for yourself: We may be quick to tell our kids to advocate for themselves as part of their evolution of independence, but how often do we follow our own advice? Share your needs in 3 categories:

▪ Boundaries: Autonomy for accountability and results for trust drives individual and team performance and cultivates more loyal, appreciative employees.

▪ Inclusivity: Speak up for what you want to be included in and, even more importantly, what you don’t.

▪ Respect: The greatest value proposition for companies today is whether employees feel valued. Consider in what areas of work you feel the most respected and ask your manager if they see it the same way. This is your key to aligning with your manager, mutually understanding your contribution, and bridging any gaps.

o Be more personal: Vulnerability is an important but loaded word, so many employees at every level aren’t certain how to employ it. Put simply, share a bit more about yourself than you may be comfortable with, and see if/how that helps build rapport and accelerate your leadership competency goals.

o Be more present: You will naturally stand out if you have the ability to sustain attention, listen, and respond in powerful and authentic ways. The best communicators are dynamic and charismatic — not from a mysterious and intangible personal charm but from their attentiveness to the present moment.

These steps can help us collaboratively achieve more rewarding workplaces, no matter where you are on the journey to authenticity. My BYWSTW journey is a work in progress, for example, and I’ve learned it’s not a straight line up. But I’m emboldened by the pursuit of greater self-awareness to share more of myself with others and earn their trust and respect as we work toward deeper relationships and more meaningful work.