No, do NOT bring your whole self to work

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I wrote recently about authenticity — and I am actually hosting a Twitter chat about it on Wednesday under the hashtag #realdealchat if you’re interested — and, broadly speaking, I think the concept is great personally and terrible professionally.

The basic issue of “be authentic at work” or “bring your whole self to work,” for me, is that most managers don’t want that. They want someone who’s basically an animal for hitting KPIs. Not all managers, no — but most. That’s how managers think of “being true to thy own self,” often: They believe deeply that they make the trains run, they like to virtue-signal about work and process, and they always think they’re just one great project away from really having authority. (They started thinking that 82 projects ago.)

One of my friends has this joke that I used at a trade show once. It goes something like this: “You know what a synonym for being authentic at work is? Being unemployed.” One time late in 2017, when I was still trying to figure out my life post-divorce (I’m still doing that, FYI, because I’m a human being), I got drunk day-side (healthy!) and came back and was lying on my bed with my dog (healthy!) looking at memes. Somehow I stumbled onto LinkedIn and the top article on mobile was called “Where did all the authentic leaders go?” I drunkenly responded, “They got fired.” If I remember, that comment got 14 likes. ** pats self on back **

Research on all this “bring your true self to work” stuff

From here:

“We each have multiple identities that can manifest at any time,” says Kouchaki, who conducted the research with Mahdi Ebrahimi of California State University, Fullerton and Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston. “When those identities are integrated through shared meaning, there’s a sense of cohesiveness, which leads to greater feelings of authenticity and better moral behavior.”

But when they’re segmented, she says, “we feel in conflict, which creates a sense of inauthenticity and increased risk of unethical behavior.”

I agree about the multiple identities for sure. What to do execution-wise with this research is tougher. Does that mean let the ladies play on The Gram all day so long as a few targets are hit? And that will create less unethical behavior? Or does it mean the old “foster a culture of transparency” deal?

Here’s what the researchers say about real-world, cubicle implications:

Kouchaki says companies should therefore try to help employees integrate their work and other identities, which in turn will foster ethical behavior. This could be done via a range of different initiatives, from casual Fridays where employees can dress more to their own liking, to corporate retreats that encourage frank emotional discussion.

These are good base-level ideas, but “wearing jeans on Fridays” is not a good placeholder for “authentic self,” and corporate retreats are usually not attended by the people who need to feel authentic … and, what’s more, they’re typically excuses to booze and do trust falls, not have real conversations.

OK, back to this manager issue

You need to remember a few things above all, I think:

All those are pretty fraught. They are dealing with a lot and feeling overwhelmed. Now they’ve got a team of, let’s say … 6 people? Those six are all being “their authentic selves” at work. You know what a manager would look at that and see? Chaos. And when a manager sees chaos, what happens? Every little thing, down to even needing to take a dump, becomes a point of process.

So while the research above says “being authentic at work creates more ethical behavior,” and that might be true in pockets, I’d counter with “being authentic at work creates more process for you and your team to follow.”

So what do we do now?

You need to try and build a culture which begins from the clear idea of The work getting done in a quality way is the goal of this place. You can frame that as “We want to serve our customers” or whatever. But basically, you have an end goal. Assuming you know what that end goal is (hopefully!), the end goal is what matters.

Once you’ve agreed that is what matters, then agree on this: People are different.

By that I mean some people take 12 hours to do basic tasks, and some do the same task in 1, or find a Macros workaround to do the task for them.

So now you have:

  • The end goal matters
  • People are different

At that intersection, time does not matter anymore. If you need to spend 60 hours reaching the end goal, so be it. Spend 60. If you can reach the end goal in 10, spend 10.

Once the end goal is reached, you are done with that place for that week. You can go be authentic in the remaining hours. If you have no remaining hours, then you are authentic on your own time. When you are getting paid towards achieving an end goal, your focus is the biz and the end goal.

Now bring in quality control: If the person doing the work in 10 is half-assing and cutting corners and the work sucks, well, put that person on a good ol’ PIP and if they don’t get better, pipe them out. Now find another person. And if they work in 10 hours and the work is quality, well, they have 30 hours back to themselves to play with their dog and see movies at 3pm and whatever they want to do.

The end goals need to be what matters. Too often, “seat time” or control is what matters. When those things matter, we have to have discussions about “bringing your whole self to work,” because work necessarily has to become all-consuming since what’s being tracked and judged is time and process.

If you track and judge shit that actually matters, the “authenticity” discussion goes away to an extent … because if people are coming in with green hair and Radiohead shirts but they’re hitting targets, who really cares? Or if they’re hitting targets and leaving when that’s done, again, who cares?

We only have the authenticity discussion because we usually aren’t clear on what’s even supposed to matter at work.

Your take?

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