On Wholeness

On Wholeness

July 2, 2022
An Overview:

The unfinished business of bringing our whole selves to work.

When did the invitations to bring our whole selves to work begin? As far as I can tell, the phrase first appeared in commencement addresses Sheryl Sandberg delivered at UCLA Anderson and HBS in 2011 and 2012, though it wasn’t until the publication of Sandberg’s Option B in 2017 and Mike Robbins’ Bring Your Whole Self to Work in 2018 that “bring your whole self to work” entered the corporate mainstream and became de rigueur for recruiting pitches everywhere. Ubiquitous as the phrase has become, there are signs that workplaces are beginning to tire of it, as a recent article in the Economist admonishes: “Do not bring your whole self to work … no one really wants to see it.”

Which would be a pity, if true – because I believe the invitation to “wholeness” at work has a profound power that garden-variety corporate DEI and “talking about our feelings” has not begun to plumb. Before it goes the way of other corporate fads, consigned to the graveyard of hollow management rhetoric, it’s worth attempting to recover some of its initial promise: What are we actually inviting into the workplace when we ask people to bring their whole selves? What do we owe one another, as employees and leaders alike, if we intend to take this invitation seriously?

"What we owe to each other, then, especially if we’re leaders serious about welcoming wholeness into the workplace, is to continue the unfinished business of our own inner work."

What we talk about when we talk about wholeness.

When we’re invited to “bring our whole selves to work,” what we’re being told is that we’ve been withholding parts of ourselves that, if brought into the workplace, would unlock greater connection and performance. In today’s parlance, the phrase tends to be used in one of two ways: first, what’s been left out of the workplace and now needs to be made space for is not so much whole selves but other selves – that is, the female, queer, racialized, disabled, and otherwise minoritized selves underrepresented in corporate America. In the second, what’s been withheld are the parts of our lives conventionally deemed personal rather than professional – our feelings and emotions. Both versions can trace their origins to Sandberg’s initial use of the phrase “bringing the whole self to work,” which meant both “speaking up about the challenges women face in the workplace,” talking openly about her “hopes and fears.”

It’s a worthwhile endeavor to make space at work for what’s been excluded, though as critics have pointed out, inviting minorities to bring their whole selves to work remains lip service if organizations reward only behaviors that conform to the dominant culture. Likewise, it’s simplistic to imagine that workers will believe that authentic expressions of feeling will benefit them, when what companies ultimately care about is performance. Indeed, even our vocabulary betrays us – what is a “performance review” if not an assessment of expected rather than authentic behaviors? What’s missing in these discussions, however, is the fact that the parts of ourselves that can have the most outsized impact on our performance at work aren’t being willfully withheld, suppressed, or hidden. In fact, we often don’t even realize they’re there.

I am large. I contain multitudes.

The parts of ourselves we’re canonically invited to bring to work are often the ones we know about and can hide or disclose at will: our struggles as parents of young children, our same-sex spouse, or honest feedback for our colleagues, or our hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. Don’t get me wrong – as a gay man, I know first hand how freeing it can be to not have to expend mental and emotional energy on “passing” in environments where my identity is not accepted. But this disclosure of identities and feelings doesn’t go nearly far enough to capture the beliefs, stories, and patterns that shape the way we show up at work, often at a level below consciousness, and which we can no sooner choose to hide nor reveal.

In his book, Mike Robbins uses the iceberg as a metaphor for the whole self and compares vulnerability to “lowering the waterline.” But how much do we really know about what lies beneath our waterline? We may readily disclose how our struggles as parents have influenced our work, but haven’t begun to examine how our relationship (or lack thereof) with our own inconsistent, alcoholic father continues to show up in how we relate to our managers. We may have become comfortable sharing our anxieties about challenges at work, but we can barely find the words to explain to ourselves, let alone to anyone else, why one particularly demanding client never fails to send us into a dissociative fugue. We may be active in our company’s ERG for minorities, but haven’t connected the dots that the feedback we got in our last performance review to “speak up more in meetings” isn’t about our shyness at all, but just so happens to be feedback that every single one of our East Asian colleagues received as well.

If we truly believe in inviting wholeness into the workplace, and integrating the parts of ourselves that have an outsized impact on our performance – we’re going to have to look deeper than our identity categories and feelings.

If you can name it, you can tame it.

During my time as consultant, I once managed a project that nearly broke me. I knew going in that it was going to be challenging, but it wasn’t the impossible scope, the compressed timelines, or the shifting priorities that ultimately did me in. It was that the project was being led by a partner who embodied the exact flavor of blithe unreliability that sent me careening back to childhood scenes of my inconsistent upbringing. Not that I understood any of this at the time,  which I spent in a wordless haze of adrenaline-fueled panic. In my attempts to describe to others what was going on, the best I could do was compare it to being trapped in a vehicle with a drunk driver at the wheel. Everyone on my team struggled during those days, but I suffered disproportionately and unnecessarily in ways I could not name. I didn’t need to be invited to bring my whole self to work, because I already was. Quite against my will, old, inchoate, barely verbal parts of myself I hadn’t recognized followed me to work every day.

I often think back to those months when I reflect on what it means to invite wholeness into the workplace. The experience held up a mirror to me and gave me an opportunity to integrate parts of myself I hadn’t known were there. But it was a painful, lonely process and helped me realize how unprepared we are in the workplace to hold space for experiences like it. At the height of my distress, it would’ve been facile to ask me to lean into authenticity and vulnerability about my whole self. It took me plenty of time, space, therapy, and coaching to understand the older sources of my distress, to connect it to what was happening to me in the moment, and to articulate what I actually needed from those around me. It’s one of the reasons I decided to become a coach: because I began to intuit just how much quiet distress and untold suffering passes beneath the everyday veneer of our professional lives, and wanted to do something about it. If we’re willing to do the work, and we’re lucky enough to have support, work can be a place of healing into wholeness.

What we owe each other.

No one could’ve done that work of healing for me; I had to do it myself. I’m grateful to have had half a lifetime of therapy, coaching, and spiritual practice to lean on, but I wasn’t the only one on that team struggling to understand what was going on inside of me. The partner who triggered my distress, and whose capricious and unpredictable style of leadership gave those around him so much grief – what unnamed parts of himself was he bringing to work every day, unbeknownst to himself? What was it that drove his aversion to committed decision-making and his absolute commitment to spontaneity as a management principle? I can only imagine. As Jerry Colonna says in an interview with On Being, “I think that corporations, businesses, have a well-earned reputation for inflicting a kind of suffering on our communities and our planet; and I think that a lot of that stems from the fact that the leaders in those corporations don’t know what to do with their suffering, and so they inflict it on others.”

What we owe to each other, then, especially if we’re leaders serious about welcoming wholeness into the workplace, is to continue the unfinished business of our own inner work. We all know what it’s like to have to tiptoe around leaders unaware of the effect they have on others. I once worked with a partner notorious for being difficult to work with because of their temper. Others on the team told me that one “had to be resilient in order to work with them,” which led to me feeling rather pleased with myself for having survived working with said partner for months on end – until a wise friend pointed out to me that it’s rather the sort of thing you say about an abusive spouse you can’t leave, not an inspiring leader. It’s the least we can do to make sure that others don’t have to tiptoe around the parts of ourselves we don’t know about, but that continue to follow us around the workplace anyway. It won’t be easy, and we’ll wish we didn’t have to do it. But as poet Anton Wildgans writes, “what is to give light must endure burning.” What will you be bringing to work tomorrow?

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