The Authentic Team

Three office workers, standing, hiding their faces behind happy face masks

The Problem With Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

John Schrag - 8 April 2023

The first time I heard the phrase “bring your whole self to work”, I rolled my eyes a little.  It just sounded like another vague, pleasant-sounding, motherhood-and-apple-pie platitude being thrown around in the business blogosphere.  


I don’t feel that way any more.


While the phrase is still thrown around carelessly, it does have a specific meaning, and real value.  In this article I’m going to talk about what it means for people to bring their “whole self”, why it’s important, why it’s so hard to achieve, and how you can make it more likely to happen on your team.


What “bringing your whole self to work” means


Every day, millions of employees are in meetings, but not fully present.  Rather than engaging completely with the business problems of the day, some percentage of their brain is focused instead on how they are being perceived, and how this will impact their social and employment standing.  Of course everyone does this to some extent – but for people who believe themselves to be outside the group norms, it can be fraught and anxiety-inducing.


Am I coming across as too gay?  If I assert this important point, will I be dismissed as an “aggressive woman”?  If they discover I love comics and hate sports will the other guys accept me?  If they see the state of my house in zoom, will they judge me for it?  Will my rural accent make people think I’m uneducated?  Will my natural hair or choice of tattoos be perceived as ‘unprofessional’? If they find out I go to church and I like to go hunting with my dad, will they assume I’m racist or homophobic?  If they find out I love knitting and baking, will they assume I can’t do the serious engineering?


People who feel that being their natural selves might put their social standing at risk will modify their behaviour, not share their thinking fully, or disengage.  Some people go so far as to reveal absolutely nothing about themselves to co-workers.  This isn’t good for the person, their team, or their employer.


Autistic people have a term for this – it’s called “masking”.  Autistic masking is when a person suppresses certain natural autistic behaviours (such as “stimming”), or mimics uncomfortable neurotypical behaviours (such as prolonged eye contact) to reduce the discomfort of the neurotypical people around them that they are trying to communicate with, and to not be seen as an outsider.  It’s exhausting, and big cause of Autistic burnout.  Many Autistic people have been trained to mask from a young age, and the ability to mimic neurotypical behaviour is seen as a positive outcome, in spite of the toll it can take.  (Of course, not every Autistic person stims, and not every Autistic person finds eye contact uncomfortable.  Autism comprises a wide spectrum of traits and can show up as widely divergent behaviour.) 


The phrase “Bring your whole self to work” means working without masking – whatever masking means for you.  It mean not having to expend your cognitive energy pretending to be something that you are not.  It means being authentic, even if that makes you feel vulnerable.  


Why It’s Important


I’ve had the experience of working both masked and unmasked.  In my first permanent full-time job out of University in the 1980s, I didn’t tell anyone that I was gay.  Where I lived, employment protection for gay people had only been enshrined in law the same year I graduated, and discretion just seemed prudent.  Besides, I told myself, my orientation had nothing to do with my work.  Although it’s not a big deal now, in the 1980s coming out could put you at considerable risk.


But hiding my identity was a constant low-grade stress.  I had to carefully monitor every casual conversation I had with co-workers, switch pronouns when talking about some things, obfuscate about where I spent my weekends, and put up with homophobic humour.  After a few years I finally came out at work.  The amount of relief I felt surprised me.  It freed up my whole brain to focus on my work, and permanently removed a chronic stress from my life.  My performance improved, I was able to create better, more authentic relationships with my co-workers, and, as it turned out, no one who mattered cared.


From a business point of view, dropping the mask is a win-win for everyone.  The constant effort of masking while working reduces the effectiveness of employees.  While we like to believe that we can do multiple things at once, this is simply not true.  Any time your brain is simultaneously doing multiple tasks that require executive function, it is actually engaging in rapid task-switching, and there is a cost to that.  It’s like using your phone while driving – you may think you can do it but it reduces your driving skill as much as being drunk does.  Constantly pretending to be someone you are not can also lead to burnout, which the World Health Organization defines as unmanaged chronic stress.  


Why it’s hard to achieve


So if “bringing your whole self to work” is good for employees and business, why don’t people do it all the time?  The answer is simple: because they are not idiots.


People mask because there are very real risks to revealing yourself in the wrong situation.  Every person who is masking can tell you a story about being judged unfairly, having wrong assumptions made about them, being overlooked for opportunities, being fired, harassed, socially excluded, or seen as incompetent because of some aspect of themself that is fundamentally not related to work performance, or that could be easily accommodated.  Even United States President Franklin Roosevelt hid his disability through much of his presidency, with news photographers being prevented from taking photos that would reveal his paralysis or wheelchair use.  He feared that voters would think a wheelchair-user couldn’t do the job of President.  Imagine the time and effort he had to put in to keep up that charade – including having to support himself during speeches by gripping the podium with his arms.


The amount of risk differs depending on the individual, the environment they are in, and how many ways they differ from perceived group norms.  For example, someone with an ethnic or class difference who is also neurodivergent may get a very different reaction than a member of the majority group with that same neurodivergence.  When you ask people to bring their whole selves to work, you are asking them to take a personal risk – and in some cases a really big one. 


So that is the conundrum.  People don’t want to mask, but most aren’t going to drop their masks until they know it is really safe to do so.  And they won’t know they are safe until they see what happens when others take off their masks and show some vulnerability.  And even if the team environment feels safe, an employee might worry about people outside the team – maybe their co-workers are comfortable with their non-conforming gender presentation, but their boss’s boss might be alarmed or disgusted by it, leading to longer-term career ramifications.  



Building a safe space for people to unmask


For team members to really “bring their whole selves to work”, there has to be psychological safety both in the team and in the larger organization.  The very first stage of psychological safety is just about feeling included and accepted.  Until people feel that, they can’t truly move on to the higher levels which allow for the innovation you want in a team.


Businesses try to drive inclusion with corporate-level efforts, such as DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) workshops or the creation of Employee Resource Groups.  While valuable, these kind of company-wide gestures only go so far, especially if they are seen as performative.  People will decide how much of their authentic selves to bring to work based on the day-to-day interactions they see within their own team, and by cultural signals such as: who is being promoted, who is invited to make decisions, who gets opportunities, who faces consequences and for what, how other people (and their opinions) are judged, what language and behaviours are tolerated, and who are the butt of jokes being told in meetings.


So as a manager, how do you foster the psychological safety your team needs?  Before people on your team will trust you, you have to show that you trust and respect them and their differences.


The most important thing you can do is to be vulnerable in front of your team first.  Sharing your own weaknesses, mistakes and individuality with honesty and humour sends a strong signal to the team that it’s okay for them to make mistakes and to be different.  If you want them to take a personal risk, you need to demonstrate that you are willing to do so.


Second, you must respond to people’s differences with curiosity and openness to learning, rather than judgement.  You also need to shut down “judgey” reactions you see happening in your team.  It’s easy to jump to wrong conclusions.  You might assume that the person on your team always wearing earphones is being rude and antisocial, when in fact she has sensory issues and the earphones allow her to engage more.  Ask respectfully if you don’t understand something about someone.


Here are more things to try:


·      Allow people their privacy – curiosity does not mean prying.  Let people open themselves up to you and the rest of the team at their own speed to a level that is comfortable to them.

·      Create rituals (regular ways of working) in your team that help drive inclusion.  This could include things like using inclusive facilitation patterns, or holding welcome lunches for new team members.  With so many people working remotely, it’s important to find ways for a team to get to know one another better in a relaxed atmosphere, rather than only through work -- on company time.  Don't expect your people to give up their personal time for a work event.

·      Avoid gossip and trash-talk.  If someone on your staff hears you trash-talking someone who isn’t in the room, they will assume you trash-talk them when they aren’t in the room, and that could kill the possibility of trust. 

·      Check in with your staff during one-on-ones to see if the current team norms work for them.  Sometimes a small adjustment or accommodation can really help someone feel like they matter  (e.g. delaying a team lunch until after Ramadan, or shifting a regular meeting time for someone in a different time zone, or allowing cameras off in meetings when needed).  Try to share any inconvenience or discomfort around the team, rather than expecting certain people to carry all of it.


What not to bring to work


“Bring your whole self to work” does not mean giving up your privacy, or sharing every thought and opinion in your head, or telling the whole office every detail of your vacation or your Aunt Martha’s gout.  You can leave that at home, along with any self-righteousness or judginess.  But it does mean being authentic in what you do choose to share, and being courageous enough to be vulnerable.  If you are a leader, and you want your team to bring themselves to work, you need to go first and show them how it’s done.  You can’t force it, of course; some people will never completely drop the mask, and you must trust that they understand their situation better than you do.

John Schrag's face

John Schrag is a former software engineer, user experience designer, UX executive, facilitator, trainer and coach, now retired.  He writes about building healthy teams, psychological safety, and workplace culture.

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