Why your employees should “bring their whole selves” to work

the importance of bringing your whole self to work

The concept of bringing your whole self to work was popularized by Mike Robbins through his book Bring Your Whole Self to Work, as well as his work as a consultant.

Mike Robbins has been helping various organizations improve performance by teaching employees how to be more authentic and teaching decision-makers how to foster working environments where it is safe for employees to be authentic.

In his book, Robbins shares a Gallup research finding, which claims that only 32% of US workers are engaged in their jobs. Some of you may think, “So what’s the big deal?” Well, in many cases, decreased engagement leads to poorer performance and a higher risk of burnout.

Another statistic Mike Robbins quotes in the book is from ADP, a human capital management company. ADP estimates that each disengaged employee costs their company roughly $2,246 a year. Now multiply that by the number of employees you have and you’ll know more or less how much money you may be losing.

Bringing your whole self to work, the concept

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter F. Drucker

Peter F. Drucker famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning that a great business plan can be derailed by the people executing it if those people cannot work effectively for some reason.

And why would that be? Mike Robbins argues that it’s very energy-consuming to carry the shield that we use to protect our authentic selves. For decades, people have tried to separate their personal and professional lives, much to the detriment of both. Conversely, it’s liberating and leads to a greater sense of fulfillment if you show up as your authentic self as much as possible.

People may not be ready to reveal everything about themselves at once. But it helps to start somewhere and keep revealing an ever bigger part of that “iceberg hidden under the water” (another metaphor used in the book). And if you do so with vulnerability and honestly, it will likely trigger a positive reaction from the person you are “coming out” to.

Robbins’s book describes five principles of this approach:

  • Be authentic: Show up honestly, without self-righteousness, and with vulnerability. It is crucial to remove self-righteousness from the equation. A natural response to self-righteousness is self-defence. Authenticity is not about always speaking your mind or being right. It’s about being real, minus being obnoxious. Hence, the formula is as follows:
The formula for authenticity by Mike Robbins
  • Utilize the power of appreciation: See and empower the people around you. Empower yourself by allowing your true self to be seen. Recognition is recognizing people for what they do; appreciation is appreciating people for who they are.
  • Focus on emotional intelligence: Increase your self-awareness and be aware of others. Know how to manage your emotional life (through mindfulness and other practices) and your relationships with others (by learning to listen and having no preconceptions about the speaker).
  • Embrace a growth mindset: Perceive challenges as opportunities for growth. Anything can be improved upon with the right attitude. Success happens not so much thanks to the initial given (our intelligence or talent), but thanks to dedication and hard work.
  • Create a championship team: Since Mike Robbins comes from a sports background, he uses sports analogies a lot. A winning team is greater than the sum of its parts: it’s a team where there is “chemistry” between the teammates, something which we call “culture” in the corporate world. Every leader should build a culture that’s safe and conducive to people being themselves.

These principles may seem unclear in a concise form, but they are made clear in the book and are supported by lots of examples.

What you can do as the boss

Soft skills are hard.

Mike Robbins

The biggest obstacle to authenticity is that it’s actually hard. It’s also scary. However, Mike Robbins claims it’s better to have that “ten-minute, sweaty-palmed conversation” with your boss (or whoever) and “come out” to them, than keep things to yourself and allow those reservations to impact your performance.

If you are the boss, you should realize that it’s hard to change things from the bottom up, so you should lead by example. By showing that you can also be vulnerable, wrong, and imperfect, you make it safe for others to acknowledge their mistakes, ask “stupid” questions, and share their worries.

Another thing you can do is hire for culture and promote employees with high EQ (emotional intelligence). However, be warned that hiring for culture can be easily misunderstood as giving preference to people who are just like you in certain ways.

You should also strive to create an atmosphere where employees feel safe and valued, irrespective of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or other differences. What helps is holding unconscious bias training sessions as well as taking any instances of discrimination seriously.

For example, when Mike Robbins went on a podcast with Chris Hill - chef, marketer and published author - the latter shared a story of himself making jokes and being sarcastic at work in the past. In retrospect, Chris said that that may have contributed to the atmosphere of judgement. He also called fun-poking “a male-oriented activity” and one that could make female employees feel insecure.

Besides taking the above mentioned steps, you can find Mike Robbins’s exercises helpful, which he mentions in Bring Your Whole Self to Work. He uses these exercises in his workshops, and they are designed to help employees open up, reveal more of their humanity, and bond as a team.

The criticism

In her talk “Why you should not bring your authentic self to work,” writer and speaker Jodi-Ann Burey dwells on the drawbacks of being your authentic self at work. As a woman of color, she noticed that her revealing too much of her “blackness” has left her overlooked when it came to promotions, mentorship, and other perks people get for fitting in. The takeaway from that talk is that companies should not only make statements about equal opportunity and fair treatment, but should actually walk the talk and strive to make those values a reality.

Hiring people is already hard in and of itself. Imagine also having to factor in culture. Sometimes, your ideal candidate may be a bit of a jerk. Should you hire them anyway, or reject the otherwise perfect hire? In my experience, companies often find a compromise. In IT in particular, the very nature of the job requires you to be smart and many people who are objectively smart have a strong sense of entitlement and resentment towards things they can’t explain through equations, such as EQ. As a result, they may be lacking in emotional intelligence, because they don’t really understand it.

In conclusion

When Sundar Pichai was appointed CEO of Google, a company employee shared that “all the assholes have left.” Pichai is considered a people person, you see. And he promoted people that are both technically competent and emotionally intelligent to top management positions. Maybe, if Google can do it, we all can.

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