When ‘being yourself’ at work spells disaster

January 3, 2012, 2:42 PM UTC

Stressed at work? Russ Eisenstat recently made the suggestion on this site that we’re not merely discouraged by news of a still sluggish economy or by wonky work-life balances, but that we feel pinched by company cultures that compel us to separate our true selves from the self that shows up for work. Not being able to bring our personal lives and passions to work has an alienating effect, this argument goes.

Eisenstat’s research has led him to believe that people who do not feel forced to compartmentalize, people who are “able to bring their whole selves to the job and can connect what they do at work to a meaningful larger purpose” are happier — and that the companies who employ such people are, by extension, more successful.

This sounds great, but I’m skeptical. It’s true that people who have found a way to integrate their life’s purpose with their job tend to be contented people. That combination is, as Dick Gochnauer, CEO of United Stationers (USTR), remarked, “very, very powerful.”

But not all employers like the look of that kind of power. Why not? Because people in that happy groove are often people who care a lot about the product. Sometimes they care much more than their employer or immediate superior does. They’re difficult to argue with. Ask them to compromise on a strategy or workflow or company output, and you’re essentially asking them to compromise their values, their integrity, their very selves.

We have a term for such stubbornly integrated people who refuse to check their personas at the door when they sit down to work. We call them freelancers. Called in to help with specific projects, they bring their specific, highly developed skills to the table, and when said project is done, they move on. Unless they are experiencing a severe cash flow drought, they tend not to contract for projects that require too much compromise. The self-employed swap steady paychecks for the joy of not having to apologize to the boss when a child’s illness means they need to clock out at 3 p.m.

Employees typically don’t have that option. To keep their job or keep peace with colleagues, they’re more likely to be put into a position where they’re just following orders. Even at a time when forward-thinking companies claim to have abandoned the old command-and-control model, the fact that the company signs the checks puts a proverbial thumb on the scale.

But it’s understandable — and likely — that companies will look at the examples Eisenstat refers to and wonder what kinds of programs might help them harness some (but not all) of the energy emanating off purpose-filled workers.

And here’s where there’s tremendous potential for ill-considered policies, particularly in the realm of “bring work into life” initiatives. Asking employees to participate in a company-sponsored program in which employees pack backpacks for underprivileged children is fine. Tell me that employee’s children help too, however, and I’m envisioning extra hassle for the non-employee spouse. (It sounds about as voluntary as bringing cookies to a school bake sale.)

The pitfalls of blurring the personal-work borders

Things don’t look much rosier in the “bring life into work” arena. David Lissy, CEO of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, phrased his approach this way: he wants employees not to feel as if they need to park who they are in the parking lot. Company leaders are evidently being encouraged now to let employees drop the pretense of a professional veneer that obscures their personality.

This is again fine in theory, but problematic in practice. First of all, where does this candor and transparency end? In such a workplace, is “I’m too hung over to get anything done today?” an appropriate thing to announce? Would employees be nudged to participate in camaraderie exercises and divulge personal information they’d prefer to keep to themselves?

It could also complicate end-of-year reviews. Does an employee who everyone in the office knows is going through a painful divorce get softer, kinder treatment? Or conversely, does the guy who values his privacy all of a sudden get branded asocial?

And here’s the crux of the dilemma: Maybe he is asocial. Maybe the answer to the painful divorce question is yes. (Stranger things have happened. Even ruthless for-profit companies make soft-hearted decisions in some areas.) But any company that adopts greater work-life integration as a collective goal better be prepared to spend a lot of time thinking about quandaries that never entered anyone’s mind when everyone kept personal life safely at home.

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence from other realms of life to suggest that not bringing our full selves to the table is a habit we fell into for good reason. Every holiday season ushers in a slew of articles about how not to let divergent views on politics or religion turn happy family celebrations into screaming arguments. We may enjoy our own full selves, but other people’s full selves can be downright offensive. Introducing greater transparency into the workplace could lead to peppier employees. It could just as easily lead to stronger, more personal resentments.

Younger employees are also at greater risk in such an office. Someone with 25 years of experience will have a nuanced understanding of how much is too much. Someone new on the job is not going to know nearly so well when it’s best to be herself and when mystery might serve her cause better.

Small surprise, then, that the very first books about how to succeed in business cautioned against being too comfortable in the office. “No doubt there are a few men who can look beyond the husk or shell of a human being — his angularities, awkwardness, or eccentricity — to the hidden qualities within,” William Mathews wrote in his 1874 book Getting on in the World. “But the majority are neither so sharp-eyed nor so tolerant.”

Can you really be yourself inside a panopticon?

And then practice bumps up against conflicting practices. Many companies have policies and structures in place that work against bringing our “whole selves to the job.” Every employee knows (or ought to) that every work email she composes may be monitored or even read by someone else in the company, and how stultifying that is. Would the same firm that seeks more integrated employees agree to give them full ownership of their company email accounts? I doubt it.

In the end, some of these prescriptions for wedding one’s life purpose to one’s job start to sound like thinly veiled attempts to encourage overtime. It’s a short stop from “Don’t just do the work, care about us and our collective mission” to “Since you care so much, of course you’ll want to check work email on the weekends.”

There are good ways to bring one’s full self to work, even for an employee who can’t shake the sense that some shadowy IT person is reading over their shoulder every time they compose an email. But outside of a corporate environment in which employees are treated like adults who can decide for themselves when it’s all right to clock out at 3, or a broader culture in which people are comfortable with disagreement and confrontation, meaningful progress is going to be difficult.

Tell a Dutch professional, for example, that his project proposal reminds you of work you did in high school, and chances are you two will still share a companionable after-work Amstel. Try something similar in a Minneapolis boardroom, and you may not be invited back. Before any organization begins thinking about culture change, I’d hope they’d give some thought to these complicating considerations.