Culture   //   August 9, 2022  ■  5 min read

‘It’s pulling us apart’: Has the ‘bring our whole selves to work’ trend backfired?

In the post-Covid-19 era, business leaders are advised to be authentic in word and deed, display their vulnerabilities and encourage staff to bring their whole selves to work. But some argue this has merely opened a can of worms within organizations — an outcome which may be hard to rectify.

Almost half (44%) of U.S. employees said they have actively avoided some co-workers because they disagree with their political views since returning to the office following the coronavirus crisis, according to unpublished Gartner research seen by WorkLife.

Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of research for Gartner’s human resources practice, acknowledged that events of the last 2 1/2 years have frayed work relationships. Still, in his view, we have brought this problem on ourselves.

“We spend so much time talking about ‘bringing your whole self to work,’ making sure that we’re inclusive and encouraging people to be who they are when they’re in the office,” he said. “Part of an employee’s whole self is their political beliefs.”

As workplaces have become more open and inclusive, they have also invited the day’s political, societal and cultural debates into the workplace. “Unfortunately, in this period of extreme political and cultural tension, that conflict has permeated into the workplace, and now it’s pulling us apart from each other,” added Kropp.

Blurring personal and professional lines regarding workplace behavior raises additional issues, argued London-based public relations account manager Daniel — who requested an alias due to fear of ramifications within the industry. “A lot of the leaders who talk about bringing their whole selves to work are brash people looking to excuse their behavior in the workplace,” he said. “You can bring your whole self to work but still censor how you behave towards individuals.”

Excusing toxic behavior

The hypocrisy in this case is blatant. But, according to Daniel, there is something more sinister happening, especially in creative industries like PR.

“It’s not uncommon to work with people on a range of the political spectrum and to see a clash between the old guard and those the old guard would refer to as ‘woke,'” he said. “I’ve seen people dismiss the offense they have caused — and other staff members excuse their behavior because the good outweighs the bad, apparently. Fuelled by ignorance, they are blissfully unaware of the impact their actions can have on certain people — but it’s okay, because that’s just who they are.”

The toxic behavior of one senior leader in particular (including everything from public character assignations in front of peers and regular dressing-downs), led to many people quitting, Daniel added. When this senior leader was asked why a female executive had suddenly quit, he spread the rumor that she had mental health problems.

Daniel, who resigned in July largely because of this same leader, added: “Bringing your whole self to work can’t be used to justify normalizing that kind of behavior.”

This point resonated with Almaz Ohene, a freelance copywriter in her early 30s who endured a troubling time when working for advertising agencies. In her experience of agency life, “homogenous” leadership teams are most focused on sustaining the status quo rather than applauding those who speak out. Indeed, those who effectively rock the boat are often shoved overboard — which Ohene discovered herself.

“I’m someone who doesn’t stay quiet about injustice, and I’ve found myself pushed out of the traditional workplace because of that,” she said. “There is often a lot of toxicity within the workplace, but because [business leaders] essentially pay us so we can live, it sometimes feels difficult to call out problematic behavior.”

Ohene lamented the slow evolution of workplace culture. “We should be moving toward a world where people feel able to express themselves, truthfully and vulnerably,” she added. 

Psychological safety

Dr. Rachel Taylor, host of The UnBroken Podcast and a neuropsychologist, pointed out organizations including Deloitte, Google and the BBC all claim how rewarding it is for employees to be comfortable and empowered to be themselves entirely in the workplace.

“There are many benefits of encouraging this within companies as it is a mindset that inspires trust at every level, where individuals have a certain amount of ‘psychological safety’ in being able to speak out, engage more and innovate,” she said. “Psychological safety depends on the norms within a group of people and can elicit a sharing, nurturing environment where all feel valued and supported.”

But how can organizations achieve this culture? “First, there needs to be an understanding that not everyone has the same emotional regulation, experiences, responses, code of conduct and perspectives on life,” Taylor said. “Support mechanisms must be in place for people’s fears and uncertainties. But it can’t be overstated that these are okay to be displayed in unregulated glory or outbursts.”

She suggested an update to the phrase “bring your whole self to work.” A new mantra could be “bring your kindest self to work.”

Ground rules and a supportive environment

Olivier Bousette, a Montreal-based entrepreneur, had a different take. “I agree with the idea of bringing — almost — your whole self to work, but we should have ‘you can talk about anything except sex and politics’ as a ground rule,” he said.

This idea is not too dissimilar to Kropp’s advice. “There is no amount that defines how much employees should be able to express themselves at work,” he said. “However, there is a focus of consistency on how companies should approach this challenge.”

He recommended that organizations agree with employees on a set of clearly defined values of how to behave. “If the companies have values that strongly encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work, then they also need to create the communications and support for managers on how they can create the right type of supportive environment,” Kropp said. Alternatively, if they don’t have these values in place, then they need to communicate that too, he stressed.

Nearing the crux of the problem, Kropp added: “Conflict doesn’t emerge because employees have these beliefs. Instead, conflict occurs when different employees have different expectations about what is appropriate to share or not share on these issues.”