Being human means being multifaceted. You have a multitude of strengths, skills, emotions, and experiences. You don’t fit comfortably into one single box (no matter how hard you might try), and that’s okay.
It’s a good thing to be multidimensional.
But, being multidimensional raises questions about how you should show up at work. When someone tells you to “just be yourself at work” what does that really mean?
Do you… bring your whole self to work? Change who you are? Only show certain parts of yourself?
What does it mean to “be yourself?”
Here at CHAMPS, we believe everyone should be safe to show up to work as their true self. Creating a company culture that encourages people to be their true selves can be beneficial for performance, camaraderie, and wellbeing.
But, it’s worth noting that being your true self doesn’t mean bringing your ‘whole self’ to work.
Let’s explore this further…
What does ‘whole self’ and ‘true self’ mean?
‘Whole self’ is a term you might hear a lot when discussing workplace wellbeing initiatives and company culture. But what does it actually mean?
Mike Robbins, TedX speaker and author of the book aptly titled “Bring your whole self to work” describes being your whole self as “acknowledging that we’re vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can.”
Yet, the word ‘whole’ hints towards completeness or entirety of something. If we are asking people to show up as their ‘whole selves’ then we are, by default, asking them to bring every single part of themselves to work. 100%. Nothing hidden.
This can be problematic (which we’ll get into in more detail later).
Rather than encouraging people to be their ‘whole self’, we recommend encouraging them to be their ‘true self’.
Ruth, our CEO, was diagnosed with ADHD at the end of 2022. While it’s something she has experienced her whole life, Ruth didn’t receive her diagnosis until she personally pursued it after doing lots of research into her journey and experiences so far. Based on her experiences and the experiences of others, Ruth is passionate about encouraging people to be their true self — not their whole self.
“As someone who is neurodivergent I’ve never felt comfortable or safe to show up as my “whole self”. It doesn’t mean the bits I do share are not me, it just means that, at times, I feel less safe to share everything.
I’m aware from having an active presence on social media, people assume they know “everything” about me, as I show up as my authentic self. But it is actually only a snapshot of me and my life.
I would never want to share my whole self online, there are lots of parts of me that I want to keep private from others who are not close friends or family.”
— Ruth Cooper-Dickson, CEO at CHAMPS
Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, stated we have a ‘true self’ and a ‘false self’. Your false self is where you inauthentically change who you are to reflect what you think people want to see. This is often done to protect your more vulnerable true self. On the flip side, being your true self means being authentic to who you really are.
According to a research paper by Schlegel et al, you can also define the true self as the “cognitive schema representing those aspects of the self that are considered, by the person, to be most emblematic of his or her true nature.” By that logic, you can be your true self without showing your whole self.
Whole self versus true self
Here’s another way to look at the difference between being your whole self versus true self…
Showing up as your true self can mean bringing 40% of yourself to work, but ensuring that 40% is 100% of who you authentically are.
Meanwhile, showing up as your whole self would mean bringing 100% of yourself to work at all times.
Always being 100% of yourself can be exhausting and challenging to say the least.
Remember, you are multifaceted. This means you can show different elements of your true self depending on who you are talking to or what situation you are in. The parts of yourself you show when you are with your friends may be different to the parts of yourself you show when you are at work. But, they are both parts of your true self.
Should you encourage people to bring their whole self to work?
There has been a growing emphasis on bringing your whole self to work over recent years.
The idea behind this concept is to foster an inclusive, positive company culture
When you encourage your team to bring their whole selves to work, you ask them to share all aspects of their beliefs, personalities, and personal lives. While the intention is admirable, there are concerns with the reality of putting this concept into action.
People may feel the need to overshare or feel pressured to disclose personal details they don’t feel comfortable sharing. This raises privacy and safety concerns.
People could also be put at risk of increased judgement or discrimination if bringing their whole self to work means expressing unconventional experiences or perspectives. If this isn’t done in a safe, supportive environment, it could put their psychological safety at risk.
For many people of colour, for example, bringing their whole self to work sadly isn’t possible.
We only need to look at the harrowing yet real statistics that show that Black women with coily or textured hair are twice as likely to experience microaggressions than Black women with straighter hair. For some people being your whole self isn’t a clear-cut solution.
For others, being your whole self could be used as an excuse to act or speak without a filter. They may use it as a way to disrupt the workplace, behave inappropriately, or share harmful beliefs and ideologies without repercussion. In this scenario, encouraging people to be their whole selves could be damaging for employee wellbeing and the wider company culture.
Before someone can authentically be themselves at work, the company culture needs to be one that prioritises employee wellbeing, diversity, and inclusion.
Why we should encourage people to bring their true self, not their whole self, to work
Instead of advocating for people to bring their whole self to work, it may be better to encourage them to bring their true self. While it may seem nuanced, this subtle difference can have a huge impact on wellbeing.
Encouraging people to be their true selves fosters a culture of authenticity. People will feel they can be genuine by showing the parts of themselves they feel comfortable showing. In turn, this can create an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and mutual respect.
It can also allow people to better leverage their unique strengths and skills. Your personality isn’t fixed so being authentic to your true self means you can tap into different strengths as and when you need them. If, for example, you are good at dissolving high-stress situations, this is something you can tap into when faced with difficult conversations or conflict within a team.
Fostering a work environment where people can be their true selves allows you to celebrate neurodiversity, disabilities, and cultural differences. It allows people to share the parts of themselves they feel safe sharing and creates a sense of belonging between people. This, however, may only be possible if you first develop workplace policies and processes to support diversity and inclusivity.
Encouraging people to be their true self could result in greater performance and happiness levels. Research shows that allowing people to be themself at work leads to improved relationships, greater work satisfaction, and improved innovation.
How to create a company culture where employees feel comfortable bringing their true self to work
Encouraging employees to bring their true selves to work isn’t as simple as telling them to “just be yourself”. It requires genuine commitment and action at every level of your organisation.
Here are some key strategies to consider when creating a company culture where people feel comfortable being themselves:
Establish clear policies and guidelines
Develop company policies and guidelines that explain what it means to be your true self.
These policies should address issues like discrimination, harassment, and confidentiality to make sure employees are protected from harm when being their true selves.
Be sure to emphasise employee rights and protections, as well as reminding people of behavioural expectations. This will help people feel secure when expressing themselves and let them know what is and isn’t acceptable within the workplace.
Invest in a holistic wellbeing strategy
Supporting your employees true selves goes beyond the workplace. You should invest in a holistic wellbeing strategy that explores physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing both in and outside of work.
Provide resources for stress management, wellbeing consulting, breathwork, and other practices that encourage holistic wellbeing. Give your employees the tools to safely show up as their true selves.
Lead by example
The leaders in your organisation play a crucial role in your company’s culture. Make sure senior team members lead by example by openly embracing their true selves. This sends a powerful message to other team members, encouraging them to also be their true self.
When showing their true selves, leaders should prioritise authenticity, vulnerability, and open communication.
Training and coaching
Offer training programmes to educate employees about the value of authenticity and give them the tools to embrace their true selves.
Pair this training with wellbeing coaching and consulting to allow employees to safely explore their true selves with a professional wellbeing practitioner. 1:1 coaching can be powerful for helping your team to unlock their strengths and leverage their true selves at work.
Take a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviour
Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable being their true selves relies on having a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate or harmful behaviour.
Make sure immediate action is taken against harassment, discrimination, bullying, or other behaviours that undermine inclusivity and psychological safety in the workplace.
Regularly check-in with employees
Encourage frequent feedback loops between employees and their managers. This gives your team the opportunity to express any concerns they may have, share their experiences, and seek support.
Managers should also use these check-in sessions to provide constructive feedback on how employees can thrive as their true selves.
Integrate diversity and inclusivity initiatives into your company DNA
Actively integrate diversity and inclusivity into your organisation. From developing policies and increasing representation at all company levels to offering diversity training and creating space for underrepresented voices, diversity and inclusivity should be consciously prioritised in your company processes.
Giving employees the opportunity to share diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences can also make it easier for people to be their true selves without fear of judgement or discrimination.
Final thoughts — we should focus on being our true selves, not our whole selves
There might be a right time and place to be your whole self. But, your workplace probably isn’t it.
While the concept of bringing your whole self to work has its merits, it also raises concerns.
When we tell people to bring their whole selves to work, we could inadvertently be stripping away their responsibilities, boundaries, and even their psychological safety.
Championing the concept of bringing your true self to work, instead, strikes a balance between authenticity and workplace boundaries. It fosters a company culture where employees can safely be themselves, contributing to greater psychological safety, happiness, and productivity for all.
Going forward, let’s encourage people to be their true selves at work.
If you are interested in developing a holistic wellbeing strategy that puts authenticity at the heart of your organisation, reach out to see how we can help.