Today, we’re told to “bring your whole self to work,” but does that include the good, the bad and the ugly?
Honesty and authenticity are becoming increasingly prized attributes at work. Since Covid-19 arrived, employers have encouraged staff to share what’s going on in our personal lives more than ever. And leading with “empathy” has become the hot new management style.
However, the threshold of what one person feels comfortable sharing at work – and what they are comfortable hearing – can be vastly different to another’s. So how do you strike the right balance between oversharing and being authentic? And what do people at work really need or want to know?
Corporate consultant Mike Robbins, argues in his book “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” that we should always “fully show up” and “allow ourselves to be truly seen” in the workplace. According to Robbins, it’s “essential” to create a work environment “where people feel safe enough to bring all of who they are to work.” It goes hand in hand with psychological safety, where everyone feels comfortable enough to share what they wish.
Others agree that any kind of sharing of feelings, should be met without judgment by colleagues, even if they’re unaccustomed to sharing in that way at work. “Trust is the foundation of psychological safety at work and begins to take shape when employees have a venue to be heard and be understood by their managers and leadership,” said Reggie Willis, chief diversity officer at bank holding company Ally Financial. “As more of those conversations happen, and they begin to feel supported rather than being judged or looked down upon, you build psychological safety.”
Gartner research shows that 82% of employees say it’s important for their organization to see them as a person, not just an employee, yet only 45% of employees believe their organization actually sees them this way.
“It was common that people would leave their personal life at home, did the work, left their work life in the office, and came back to their homes to their personal life,” said Carolina Valencia, vp in the Gartner HR practice. “Over time, accelerated by the pandemic, our lives started to blend. When we have lives that are intertwined, it makes sense that we should be able to show up at work how we are.”
However, the truth of the matter is that everyone will have a different threshold for what they feel comfortable sharing, and what they even feel comfortable hearing.
“It’s being really intentional about the company culture you intend to build,” said Roxanne Petreaus, CEO and co-founder of compliance training company Ethena. “Then, it’s also teaching employees what to do when someone steps over what they consider the boundaries. What I consider the boundary, might not be what another colleague considers the boundary. It’s impossible to flag that and say ‘I’m cool with kid jokes, but sad family deaths are not my jam.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
For example, Laura Ksenak, a blog author for nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, says her supervisor “doesn’t want to know more than she needs to” when it comes to talking about her mental health. However, other leaders might be fine with hearing all the details. So it really depends on the dynamics of the work relationship that are defined. Petreaus suggests it’s important to assume positive intent, but language like “I prefer we don’t discuss that” could be helpful.
When it comes to what information to share, Valencia says a good rule of thumb is to ask if the information is necessary to create a better work dynamic or if there is a need. In the instance of mental health, it might be worthwhile as it very clearly can correlate with potentially needing accommodations.
Another clear example is parenting. “If you’re a parent, be a parent both at home and in the office,” said Valencia. “That might mean that sometimes you’re late to meetings because your kid got sick unexpectedly. If we’re on a call and they interrupt me because they need something, then I’m sharing my personal life with my colleagues.”
However, even with parenting the lines aren’t always so clear cut. When Petreaus had a miscarriage, she wasn’t sure whether or not to tell her team, especially because she was new.
“I didn’t feel comfortable enough explaining what happened,” said Petreaus. “I went to the doctor and had to make up an excuse for my missed meeting. Then I had to come back to my work-from-home setup to my next call and someone asked: ‘How are you?’ Do I say how I am? Like, I’m really confused and devastated. But my response was: ‘good, how are you?’ and we went on with the call.”
She said at that time it felt right, but when she got pregnant the second time she told her co-founder about her previous experience and later shared it on LinkedIn.
“It felt like we were at a place in our working relationship where it was a thing I wanted her to know,” said Petreaus. “Sometimes I might be late to my 9 a.m. meetings. I don’t know why this time it felt more acceptable. That’s kind of the point. With bringing your whole self to work, there isn’t some checklist like ‘share weekend barbecue,’ ‘don’t share weird family anecdote.’ It doesn’t really work like that.”
Other topics like dating and relationships and what you do in your free time might be more gray as well. Willis puts it into perspective: “I give people this example: You’re going to get a different version of my whole self when I’m with friends on a Saturday compared to what you’ll get when I come to the office on Monday. They aren’t different to who I am – they are appropriate for where I am.”
Courtney Stratton, employee experience manager at Donut, a Slack and Zoom app that helps facilitate workplace culture and conversation, believes that while not everyone needs to hear about your last date, informal conversation about hobbies, interests and life outside of work is key to seeing your coworkers as people.
“A quick, serendipitous conversation could transform ‘Brad from accounting’ into ‘Brad, a hands-on dad of two who loves wings night and has a soft spot for Lady Gaga.’ That has a lot of value on the business and personal level,” said Stratton.
She argues that it can help junior and senior employees bond and build the trust needed to embark on deeper mentorship conversations. Or it can help make friends across departments, leading to deeper collaboration.
“Moments of personal connection about things that matter to us, like books, food, family, and travel, boosts productivity, improves employee morale and happiness, and just makes work more enjoyable,” said Stratton.
Although she also outlines an important caveat: “It’s still important to let people choose how much they want to share. Forced bonding can be uncomfortable and not fun for anyone involved.”
Valencia agrees. “If you want to share your full self at work, you should be able to and it should be respected,” said Valencia. “If I went through a break up, I wouldn’t go and tell my team, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have team members that would do that. If they do, they want to feel like they can.”
It can create a complex playbook for managers who are working with various different people and trying to learn how much they feel comfortable sharing.
“We are asking managers to manage emotion,” said Valencia. “Managing emotions is a harder playbook, different skills, and emotionally draining for managers too. Organizations are still trying to figure it out. We are asking so much more out of managers.”