Pamela Paul

Do Not Bring Your ‘Whole Self’ to Work

For those lucky enough to have worked from home over the past two-and-a-half years or seven years or whatever it was, it’s back to the office time. We are finally R.T.O. and I.R.L., at least until the next wave hits. And some people can’t wait.

So what exactly does it even mean? According to TED talker and corporate consultant Mike Robbins, author of a book called — that’s right — “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” it means being able “to fully show up” and “allow ourselves to be truly seen” in the workplace. Per Robbins, it’s “essential” to create a work environment “where people feel safe enough to bring all of who they are to work.” Bringing the whole self is a certified buzzphrase at Google and encouraged at Experian. An entire issue of the Harvard Business Review has been devoted to the subject. In this new workplace, you don’t have to keep your head down and do your job. Instead, you “bring your whole self to work” — personality flaws, vulnerabilities, idiosyncratic mantras and all.

Perhaps you’ve heard of whole self’s cousin, the “authentic self,” also urged to head into the office. According to BetterUp, which bills itself as the first Whole Person™ platform, “That means acknowledging your personality, including the quirky bits, and bringing your interests, hopes, dreams, and even fears with you, even if they don’t seem relevant to your work.”

In other words, for the world outside the H.R. department, the phrase “bringing your whole self to work” is almost guaranteed to induce a vomit emoji. Rarely has a phrase of corporate jargon raised so much ire and rolled as many eyeballs with everyone I’ve talked to about the subject.

And yet. In recent years, the “whole self” movement has gained momentum in part because it dovetails with fortified corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) programs. Both purport to make employees feel comfortable expressing aspects of their identity in the workplace, even when irrelevant to the work at hand.

Comfort sure sounds nice.

The problem is for many people, it’s no more comfortable dragging the whole kit and caboodle into the workplace than it is showing up every day on a relentless basis. Nor is it necessarily productive. Not all people want their romantic life, their politics, their values or their identity viewed by their colleagues as pertinent to their performance. For some people, a private life is actually best when it’s private.

So here’s an alternative: Let’s all bring only — or at least primarily — the worky parts. You remember those fragments: the part that angsted over every résumé punctuation mark and put a suit on for the first interview, the part whose mom urged her to put her best face forward in the workplace? It’s that old-fashioned thing we used to call “being professional.” Heck, it’s the you you were for your entire corporate history, until the prevailing H.R. doctrine abandoned buttoning things up.

But “bringing your whole self to work” is a cheap benefit — easier for employers to provide than, say, a raise — and one vague enough to be largely meaningless. Nor is it available to the majority of the American work force. Nobody is asking a line worker or customer service representative to add more personal vulnerability to the enterprise. For most gainfully employed people, it’s not work’s job to provide self-fulfillment or self-actualization. It’s to put food on the table.

After all, the office isn’t the only place you exist — why should they get to have all of you? If you only bring the best parts of you or at the very least, the part of you that does the actual work, you’re more likely to get rewarded for it. One friend and former manager of boomer vintage told me she credited her own success to religiously bringing her best self to work — and making sure the crabbiest, most critical part of her personality stayed home. Why deprive people of the ability to complain about work to their husband or roommate the moment they walk through the door? That’s where it generally belongs, despite the current misguided effort.

Nor is it fair to ask the workplace to deal with all your hopes, dreams and problems. “A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” an executive director for an advocacy organization recently told The Intercept. “Can you get your love and healing at home, please?”

Look, it’s understandable that things have gotten blurred. During the pandemic, many of us inadvertently shared a lot more of ourselves than we might have otherwise.

Think, too, of this additional benefit: Now you have an excuse to get your work self out of the house. Some people there may actually be sick of that person.

The New York Times