The “whole self at work” movement

September 27, 2022 • 2:00 pm

I like Pamela Paul’s NYT columns, and have subscribed to them along with those of John McWhorter and Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, the former for pleasure and the latter to satisfy my masochistic tendencies.

Paul used to be the editor of the Sunday NYT book review, but is now writing op-eds.  It was a delight to discover a new columnist who seems to be sensible about wokeism, and I’ve written about three of her columns (here, here, and here).  The title of the latest one was a bit confusing, and I wasn’t going to read it, but I did learn about a new “holistic work” movement that Paul decries.  Have a look for yourself if you have access to the NYT (i.e., click to read):

So there’s this new “Bring Your Whole Self to Work” movement, which apparently means not only schlepping your whole persona to work, but displaying it to your co-workers, warts and all:

You may be unaware of the prevailing “whole self” fashion. Perhaps you managed to skip that H.R. module or you work at a small outfit, one unencumbered by systems, strategies and sweeping philosophies.

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.”

Paul attributes the movement’s popularity to the fact that it comports with tenets of the DEI movement: “Both purport to make employees feel comfortable expressing aspects of their identity in the workplace, even when irrelevant to the work at hand.” That may be a stretch, but I’m not sure. “Holistic” is now a red-flag word for me, like “nuance” or “stakeholder”—a sign that you’re treading near Wokeville.

I am of course not familiar with this movement. Scientists and academics don’t practice it, for we don’t have that kind of work. Nevertheless, as a journalist, Paul is repelled by it:

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 everyone wants 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 everyone 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.

. . . 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.

Have any readers have this inflicted on them? Or is Paul complaining about what’s pretty much of a non-problem?

But not everyone is comfortable having their co-workers know so much about them. As the co-author of a recent paper out of Wharton (“OMG! My Boss Just Friended Me: How Evaluations of Colleagues’ Disclosure, Gender, and Rank Shape Personal/Professional Boundary Blurring Online”) noted, “There’s a tension that people have between this exhortation to bring your whole self to work, to connect, to be a part of things, but also to keep a separation between your personal and your professional life.”

. . . “I do think it’s OK to talk about what you’re going to do on the weekend or more generically,” a 33-year-old business analyst named Emily told The Times in a recent focus group on millennials in the workplace. “But if there’s something personal going on, or a problem that my family is having or something, health reasons or health concerns, I don’t talk about any of that.”

I’m actually quite glad that this movement hasn’t infused academia, or at least academic science.  It seems weird to dump your issues on your coworkers or “share” with them for the sake of sharing. One of the old bromides my father used to impart to me at bedtime was this, “Jerry, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.”  I’d rephrase that here to say, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your colleagues.”

41 thoughts on “The “whole self at work” movement

  1. I maintain that weather, football and condiment preferences exist exactly so we do not have to bring our whole selves to work.

  2. I hate this crap. Another mandatory “development workshop” coming up to make us more open, more “authentic” (all quoted things from the agenda). The “circle” is a focus, the mandatory “tell us something personal we don’t know about you”, tell us something personal about a coworker, “tell us what you don’t like about a coworker”, the whole mess. Followed by the new requirements based on this crap, cherry picked by the admin running it. Just like last time. And the time before.

    It is a power play. A way for the aggressive jerks to be jerkiest in a “safe, non-judgemental environment”, to not bother trying to be a professional. In my case, a way for an admin to dig dirt and manipulate cliques. And we are expected to continue this crap on a daily basis.

    Honestly, I don’t want to know how my coworker, whom I can not tolerate at all, spent the weekend. Or what she did at her sorority reunion. Or about her sex life with her husband. These all being things that have been considered appropriate.

    Still two days to find the most innocuous things
    I can to bring to the circle. I’m running out. This is my academic position, unfortunately.

  3. People who are comfortable with this are probably already doing so and always have done so (even when we wish they would not) while more reserved people like myself would find this painful.

    1. But what if you identify as a furry? Can you wear your tail to work? 😸

      Sadly, I’ve actually seen this. I cannot unsee it.

  4. Not a good move. Your coworkers may get a bit of your private life, no harm in that I guess (and I go further there than most), but for D*g’s sake, don’t burden them with your ‘Whole Self’. Not really smart, I’d say.

  5. People who work together usually find ways of connecting with each other. This might involve gossip at the water-cooler, talking about last night’s TV in the lift, or going out for a lunchtime pint and discussing the weekend’s football. It’s an agreeable part of working life.

    But it’s the kiss of working death when it becomes compulsory, or when colleagues think it’s fine to offload all the intimate bits of their personal issues and obsessions on everyone else. Enough, already!

    So I agree with this article, especially with someone who can spell ‘résumé’ correctly, with two acute accents.

  6. > “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your colleagues.”

    Unfortunately, I’m seeing the tendency more and more that people are doing just that, where employees now consider work space to be a ‘safe space’, and then decide to make their environment as hostile as possible for anyone they dislike. Narcissists seem to be taking advantage of the phenomenon, turning the workplace into a popularity contest, where they try to drum out anyone they label as heterodox. Employers and HR departments are walking a mighty fine line these days. There is also a trend where people know how to game every system available, including HR mechanisms.

    I think the popularity contest trends have always been there, but there is more toxic gamification than ever before.

  7. Paul attributes the movement’s popularity to the fact that it comports with tenets of the DEI movement.

    My first thought was to attribute the movement’s popularity to tv shows. What legal drama or office sitcom doesn’t come with its own cast of complex, anguished, quirky, and/or lovable characters complete with a backstory and personal life which regularly intrudes into work, thus becoming the Plot of the Week?

    Our preoccupation with entertainment thus spills into our preoccupation with getting a living. Programs on “Bringing the Whole Self” may eventually have phone apps for employees to play dramatic music or a laugh track as accompaniment to their momentous revelations or hilarious quips.

    1. The story is indeed real, even if the breasts are not. The school board has issued a bland response stating that it recognizes, nay, defends, the right of all staff (and students) to express their gender identity however they choose, as required under the Ontario Human Rights Code. So yes, “she” is entitled to bring her whole self, including her gender-affirming prostheses, to work in shop class. Fortunately the circular saw depicted in some photos taken by students is well equipped with safety guards.

      There is a back story to this, hinted at here:

      If the anonymous former student of the teacher is telling the truth — and it does seem to be true that the teacher came out as a woman only this year — he [sic] is putting this on to give the middle finger to the school board. It had apparently disciplined him, as a him, during the last school year for being unsympathetic to the Board’s policy on gender-neutral bathrooms and other trans-positive initiatives.

      The school board is in a jam. Because a self-made claim of gender identity cannot be examined as to veracity or sincerity, no matter how preposterous on its face, the Board has no recourse. If it calls his bluff and fires him, he doesn’t even have to sue for discrimination as the tweet suggests. He can make a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The Commission will then prosecute the Board at no charge to the (oppressed) complainant and the Board will have to incur legal fees defending itself even if it wins. Which it won’t. HRC’s almost always find against the deep pocket.

      1. Yes, I saw that. Many have said that his transition is real, and no-one has backed up the “this dude is trolling” version. I don’t know.

        Whatever is behind this, it would be nice if it finally tips the scales in favour of sense.

        Meanwhile, in Norway(!), a woman is apparently really going to jail for having misgendered someone.

      2. Thanks Leslie, I hadn’t heard that. Sorry about the stupid and redundant “asked asked” in my original comment – my Kindle does weird things when I backspace and I don’t always notice.

      3. Someone posted that pix of her as a fourth, next to three identical photos of Ivanka, also wearing a purple sweater.

        And it was retweeted on instagram by… Donald Trump Jr, with the comment “@ivankatrump but what kind of big brother would I really be if I showed restraint and didn’t post this???”

  8. I work at a big tech company and (anecdotally) the way Paul presents this doesn’t match with my experience.

    In our trainings, the goal is for people to feel comfortable sharing what they’re comfortable sharing. It’s NOT to force people to share.

    As an example, it’s common in Monday meetings for someone to say “how was your weekend?”. And it’s common for people to answer “fun, my wife and I went to a concert”. The idea is that if the person answering is female, they shouldn’t have to censor themselves and say “my partner and I went to a concert” out of fear.

    In other words, “bring your whole self” is more “don’t have to hide parts of yourself” and not “forced to reveal things you’re not comfortable doing” (again, in my experience).

    1. Your description sounds right. However, if I were into conspiracies and given that big tech companies tend to lean left, I would wonder if this was a way to flush out the conservatives in the work group so they could be run out of town.

      But I’m no conspiracist so nix that.

      Instead, given that big tech companies tend to lean left, would an employee in your company be comfortable to discuss the woke nature of the NYT, the binary aspect of sex or criticize CRT? Maybe not and so he worker would self-censor. Consequently, the work group would appear to be even more left leaning than it truly was. And maybe that’s the more subtle objective. Funny, that too sounds like a conspiracy. 😉

      1. I’m not sure Karl Marx would recognise big tech companies as ‘tending to lean left’. They mostly seem like hard-nosed capitalists to me (however much they may have bought into the language policing under discussion).

    2. In our trainings, the goal is for people to feel comfortable sharing what they’re comfortable sharing. It’s NOT to force people to share.

      I’ve always felt comfortable sharing what I feel comfortable sharing.

      It’s a tautology and it raises red flags for me.

      1. I think of it as two aspects of ‘comfortable’: what you’re generally ready to share and the environment into which you share it.

  9. That seems like a remarkably dumb idea, since it invites one to bring their worst traits to work. Bob over there is now openly misogynistic, and Ted should really stop drinking. Meanwhile Carol in accounting hasn’t done any work at all bc she spends her time playing online Scrabble.

    1. Yes. Part of growing up is learning to control one’s emotions and also learning to adapt one’s behaviour to the social situation. Most people would behave differently when, say, visiting their elderly grand parents and when on a beery night out with their mates. In neither case are they necessarily being inauthentic or suppressing their true nature – they are simply responding normally to different social circumstances.

  10. I suppose there are two distinct types of work environments, generally speaking. One of those can support the “whole self” movement, as the stakes are fairly low. The advertising business comes to mind, or social media companies. There might be high financial costs for poor performance, but not life and death sorts of costs.
    The other are those workplaces where professionalism, and each person’s full attention is required. A facility assembling turbines for jet engines is an example, or the room where your child is being operated on for a heart valve malfunction.

    To those of us who have mostly worked in the latter category of workplaces, all of this garbage seems sort of insane. I suspect the people advocating these schemes have no conception at all of what a professional environment is, or why it might be necessary.

  11. Great idea! Now lets have the office sit in a circle once a week and let everyone know what they have done that might surprise them (or shock them). Perhaps over time folks will be comfortable confessing their sins and discussing how they plan to make amends. Man this could go far! 😉

  12. Once again, extroverts assuming that everyone else is or wants to be an extrovert.

    [BTW, the variation I knew as a kid: “You can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”]

  13. Many of us were gobsmacked at the speed with which the holy trinity of D, E, and I became the established church in academia, with major ministries everywhere else. One throwaway line in Paul’s essay might be a clue to this wave: “Perhaps you managed to skip that H.R. module…” Could it be that the HR departments, already in place, are what ushered in the invasion of everywhere by the Church of DEI?

    Following the trail of Paul’s reference, I found that the HR profession is far more organized than I used to appreciate. For example, consider this:
    “The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the world’s largest HR professional society, representing 285,000 members in more than 165 countries. For nearly seven decades, the Society has been the leading provider of resources serving the needs of HR professionals and advancing the practice of human resource management.” We sure are enjoying more and more of “the practice of human resource management” every day, it seems. I am grateful to be retired, making my
    human resources, such as they are, no longer subject to management.

  14. It’s just another ploy of the bosses to enable them to manipulate you better and to make you completely involved in work: body, mind, soul (which there ain’t) and… everything. Believe me, I am a boss, haha.
    That is the one side. The other side is, I, as a boss, find it good when people are able to express themselves freely in the work environment, as long as they get along with their colleages and don’t freak each other out. It is helpful when people identify with their work and come to grips with the fact that it takes up a huge part of their life. It’s normal that they should want to be able to express themselves in this environment, to a certain extent. It’s all a matter of balance, and each individual (and group) is different in this respect. It certainly shouldn’t be compulsory, or, as far as I am concerned, encouraged.
    It’s all about basic human interaction, and that happens the way it happens no matter what “system” is trendy at the moment. Sometimes I wish my employees knew what-all wierd systems of thought are out there that I could try to force on them. If they did they might think better of me, just for leaving them be. 😉

  15. I wonder how well this stuff goes over in the slaughterhouse/meat-packing plant, the lumber mill, the sanitation garbage pickup truck, the septic pump truck and sewage treatment plant, plumbers, HVAC, concrete truck, lawn maintenance crew, commercial shipping engine room, and a host of other manual labor situations and communities. Never see them mentioned in the NY Times “Business” (and especially Thursday and Sunday “Styles” – what’s the latest in blue collar worker sartorial trends?) section.

    (What is the comparative advantage of the moniker “Human Resources” as compared to its predecessor “Personnel”? Is it simply a matter of the former sounding more “hoity-toity” and more accurately reflecting the “dismal” attitude of economics toward flesh-and-blood human beings?)

  16. There’s a contradiction in today’s fragile generation. On the one hand we are told we have to be hyper-vigilant and constantly monitor our speech and behavior for any micro-aggression that might pop up and offend someone. On the other hand we are told that to impose any rules on someone where it will stifle their free expression and right to be whatever self they see themselves as is forbidden as well. It will be interesting to see these kind of trends continue and when it will run into a brick wall of reality.

  17. Work has always sorta sucked for me. Even “good well-paying jobs” sucked as far as I’m concerned. Nothing I ever did personally helped another to any real degree (other than providing a job), and that kind of work, really helping people, might have elevated the experience. Just wasn’t in the cards. I hated everything about work for its confinement of time and the unwavering adherence to it. I always want (and wanted) more free time. Always, more free time; I was proud of the fact that I barely ever did homework…I did the work in other classes (study hall was a boon), so I could free up time at home. Perhaps I have too many important (to me) extracurricular activities for a “good” working person. I’ve been outta “the work force” since 2007- good fucking riddance! A post like this just reminds me that work still pretty much sucks, and is perhaps even worse, now.

  18. Glad I’ve never been exposed to this, though I’m still only in my first job outside academia.

    What I’m curious about is whether under those systems even (gasp) conservatives are encouraged to bring their whole self? Including their politics?

    1. I suspect that they’d soon be shown the door if they did – along with whoever made the mistake of allowing them past the DEI firewall.

      1. I have only one data point here: one of my conservative friends at work says he feels comfortable sharing things like “yes, I had a great weekend, I went to my church’s picnic” BUT he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing political opinions.

        I’ll add that generally, discussions of politics and religion are pretty much non-existent at work among colleagues and at meetings. Only with a colleague who has become a friend would anyone I know raise those issues.

  19. Ever suffused with hypocrisy and contradiction, whole- and authentic-self could really only mean the certain parts of certain people approved by the social justice orthodoxy. Its a win-win. Lord knows society could use more safe space for under-represented self-absorbed narcissists. Doubtless there will be a pile of emergent social authenticity experts ready to populate an additional layer of administration in our institutions.

  20. I’m retired now so, thankfully don’t have to put up with this crap anymore. When I went to work I did my job to the best of my abilities. When I wasn’t at work, what I did was my own business and bugger all to do with work. The two should never mix.

  21. [ sigh … ]

    Looks like I’ll have to do the Superman stance all day to wash this one away…

    Whole Self… Whole Foods … Holistic … Sounds great…

    I think it started when Google had big colorful play areas for their nerdly minions to lounge in.

  22. “Tell us something we don’t know about you.” My reply: I have no bloody idea what you don’t know about me. How ’bout if you tell me what you think you know and I’ll tell you what you got right.

    1. The wise doctor knows what he doesn’t know. About medicine. What he doesn’t know about the scrub nurse or the anesthesiologist he’d rather not guess.

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