Forte Connect
Diversity and Inclusion

Bring Your Whole Self to Work

Claire sitting on “Ground Cover (1995)” by Dan Peterman in MCA Chicago galleries.

Can you bring your whole self to work? Are you contributing to a workplace where others can bring their whole selves? In my experience, when people feel comfortable bringing their whole selves, they contribute more to the work.

They’re more creative and more motivated. There’s more joy and greater satisfaction. I learned early in my career how important it is to choose a workplace where I can be authentic, and now as a leader, it is a top priority for me to build a culture of respect that celebrates differences among my team members.

For me, bringing my whole self to work means that I can be honest and will be valued for who I am and how I see things. It means feeling confident that when I express a difference of opinion, or do things a different way than someone else would, people will respond with interest and listen to my point of view. And, it means that when the final decision isn’t the one I suggested, I won’t be looked down on or dismissed for having a different perspective.

When I feel confident that I’ll be respected and appreciated, I can bring my best to the table. This is psychological safety: the mutual confidence on a team that different ideas are valued, critique is welcome, and mistakes will be seen as opportunities for group learning.

I’ve been on teams that didn’t have psychological safety. Attacks were personal. If something didn’t go the way the boss wanted, we pointed fingers. We responded to this culture of blame by operating on the defensive. Instead of trying to achieve the best outcome, we tried to anticipate what the boss would want. Instead of expressing our real opinions, we looked for ways to hedge our bets and cover our butts.

We spent hours trying to avoid getting in trouble. We wasted huge amounts of time and felt nervous and unsatisfied while doing it. Teams on the defensive depend on the boss to micromanage all the decisions so they won’t be blamed. They come up with the safest solution instead of the best solution. They end up doing the same things the same way every time.

Before You Take the Job

Now, I know what to look for before I take a job. I am looking for teams that are supportive and inquisitive. The leaders are crystal clear about desired outcomes, but they empower teams to get there in their own way. Everyone is willing to make mistakes. Teams take joint responsibility for failures and approaches them as opportunities to grow.

Here are three things I ask to find out whether I am going to be able to bring my whole self to the job:

  • Look for a recent project or innovation at the organization you are considering, and ask the hiring manager, “What was the process that brought about this success?” In the response, listen for evidence of a bottom-up process, where people with good ideas anywhere in the hierarchy of the organization are empowered to implement them, and a culture of recognition, where the manager feels confident enough to give other people credit instead of taking it for themselves.
  • Ask other people on the team, “Tell me about a significant disagreement you have had. How was it resolved?” Listen for the respondent to acknowledge the validity of positions other than their own. You want to hear evidence that people expect their colleagues to have different perspectives and value the process of incorporating many different perspectives.
  • When you are a final candidate, get very explicit. Say to both the Human Resources manager and hiring manager on your hiring committee directly, “It’s important to me to be on a team that has diverse perspectives and different opinions. How does the organization pursue diversity and inclusion?” Listen for specific examples, not generalities. If an organization does not cultivate difference of experience and opinion, you are more likely to feel pressure to conform and be on teams that fall into monolithic groupthink.

On the Job

To be at your most satisfied and most effective, you and your colleagues need to be able to bring your whole self in four core areas.

Motivation

What inspires you to come to work every day? There is no wrong answer here. This could be anything from changing the world to getting a paycheck. You need to feel comfortable that your goals and motives are respected by your colleagues.

In mission-driven organizations, make sure there’s plenty of space for colleagues who are there for reasons other than the mission. In a career-driven culture, it’s important to honor the rockstars who are satisfied with and excellent at the jobs they already do.

Values

Your values and a company’s values will never be 100% aligned, because a company is made up of tens, hundreds, or thousands of people each with their own values.

Make a list of your three most important values. Look at your company’s values statement or talk to others about how they would describe the company’s values. These two lists don’t need to be the same, but they can’t be in contradiction. If they are, it’s time to move on.

Identity

There are some do-not-pass-go’s here. If you feel it’s not safe for people to know your gender, race, sexuality, religion, or (dis)ability, either tell your manager and an HR representative what is making you afraid or get out.

At the same time, bringing your whole self to work does not mean you need to feel over-exposed. You should feel free for coworkers to know where your family is from, or not. It’s yours to share with whomever you want, and keep from whomever you want.

For me, it’s important that the word is on the street at work that I’m lesbian, because my visibility signals to others that it’s safe for them to be who they are, too. I know plenty of people who don’t share information about their identities because for them it’s not relevant to their work or their relationships with their colleagues. Choose the boundaries between work and life that are right for you.

Emotions

We must be honest about our emotions at work because emotions drive decisions. This is an area where we see lots of gendered and racialized assumptions, and we all can be part of breaking those judgments down.

Directed at situations rather than people, strong expressions of anger, disappointment, anxiety, excitement, and passion are not only appropriate but also useful in the workplace at times.

Realize that each of your colleagues will have a different way of expressing these feelings, and a different level of comfort with the way you express yours. What’s important is that you all feel safe to have the emotions, and to give each other feedback when the way they’re expressed feels scary or harmful you.

When you bring your whole self to work, you become a more valuable part of the team. But, it’s useless to bring your whole self if the rest of your team doesn’t feel that they can show up whole at work, too. Find ways to bring more of yourself and, at the same time, go out of your way to affirm your colleagues when they bring new experiences and ideas to the table.

You will build a network of trust that will enable each of you to contribute more and walk away more satisfied at the end of the day.

Claire Ruud is a Forté MBA on the Move, women who are clear leaders—movers and shakers in many arenas—with stories that have a powerful, positive impact. See her full interview.

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