New York Times columnist Pamela Paul had a good piece Sunday advising employees, despite trendy human resources exhortations to the contrary, “Do Not Bring Your ‘Whole Self’ to Work.” Sure, be human and genuine, she advised, but the parts of yourself most colleagues want to see most of the time will be “the worky parts.”
In my first job thirty years ago, I worked in an organization where many people brought their whole selves to work. There were intra-office affairs, including one that broke up an intra-office marriage, another that got somebody pregnant and another that broke someone’s heart. There was an accountant who took it upon herself to tell everybody what everybody else made. But she was no match for the biggest gossip in the company, the HR manager. There was a guy who stunk worse than the subway, and no one would tell him. For two years. A TMI-inclined telemarketer used to walk around the office complimenting middle-aged women on their “high asses,” and complaining that menopause had left her with a “dead pussy.” Do not ask me if I made that up. I did not.
So I know what it’s like to work someplace where people feel encouraged to bring their whole selves to work. It’s fun, some of the time! Once, a bunch of us sat in the founder’s office and got high, like that scene in the Breakfast Club!
But in order to avoid lawsuits, unintended pregnancies and work relationships so intertwined and codependent that every strategic personnel decision becomes a fraught personal affront, I’m with Pamela Paul: Bring your best self to work. Bring your sanest self to work. Bring your most considerate and reasonable self to work. Bring your most broadly likable self to work. (And don’t worry: You’ll still be an unfathomable pain in the ass to most of your colleagues, about half the time.)
It’s easy for human resources departments to grandly say, “bring your whole self to work.” And as Pamela Paul points out, that notion fits with the righteous modern desire to make people of all kinds feel comfortable in the workplace. And if we’re going to have any cultural progress at all in the workplace, organizations and their leaders need to do every last thing they can to make people of all kinds feel more than comfortable: seen, understood, valued and appreciated for their unique and useful insights and their critical thinking.
But that will happen only to the extent that everyone, including the new recruits, arrives to the task in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill and determination to bring their very best selves to the task. Which inevitably means leaving your worst selves at home. (And people are bringing those selves to work. I hear about employee feedback channels in major companies that are as bitter and snarky and troll-ish as anything you’ve seen on Twitter.)
Culture gets made not in marble-carved sentiments but in the daily grind, and no manager of any more than three human beings ever said, “Golly, I love my team, but I just wish these folks would arrive at work every morning presenting more complex and contradictory facets of their personalities for me to deal with!”
No, most bosses feel like Andy Griffith, in Mayberry: barely holding things together amid a community full of nuts like Barney, Aunt Bee, Gomer, Goober and Floyd the barber. The only people you can trust are your small son Opie—and Otis the town drunk, who is predictable, at least!
All good people love diversity as a concept, as an ideal. But in order to work together well over the long haul in a common pursuit in a strange and dangerous professional society, even the most appealing and virtuous people need boundaries, brightly drawn.
As the legendary management consultant Run DMC noted: It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.