I often hear people saying “Bring your whole self to work”. But more often than not this seems to be an empty cliche rather than meaningful advice. What does the expression whole self really mean? Does it imply that we are hiding parts of us?
A couple of months ago, I was doing an online training course. We had just started going through basic introductions, when the instructor asked us to play a small ice-breaker game. Each person had to write two truths and a lie about themselves and the rest of the class would have to guess which was the lie. I decided to write two truths that I thought were giving a more rich picture of who I was. One of it was that I worked in retail and the other that I loved dancing. The lie I wrote was that I have met, the 7-times Formula 1 champion, Lewis Hamilton.
What happened next was extremely surprising. Every single person in the class thought that my lie was that I loved dancing. All of them thought that it was more plausible that I could have met a global celebrity, rather than liking or admitting to like dancing. Perhaps, the fact that all participants were male managers or engineers, may have skewed the results. But still, I could not believe how no one thought that I could love dancing and that I would be brave enough to admit it!
The Whole Self
It is always very interesting observing the behaviours of people who have just joined a beginner’s dance class. This is usually people that have no previous dancing experience and join a class either to try something new or to meet others. Many of them are busy professionals that come to class straight after work.
Seeing them dance is quite revealing. Usually, they seem to be with their guard on, moving around rigidly, and not connecting with their partners. They try to talk through things, and understand the moves verbally and by using pure logic and analysis. Emotionally, something seems to be missing. It seems as if their minds are still at the office.
However, dancing is much more than just memorising steps, and doing analysis of every move. It requires you to use your emotions and intuition, feel the rhythm, and communicate with your partner through non-verbal cues. In other words, it requires you to use your whole self.
Why you limit your self
Quite often, we tend to employ a narrow version of ourselves and not the whole self. At work we show up with our professional personas, hiding all the things that do not fit our corporate environment. We try to look good, be in control and come across as serious, confident and logical. We try to avoid mistakes, play safe, and as a result fail to learn and grow along the way.
Unfortunately, this is driven by our fear and insecurity of trying to fit in to what we think is culturally “acceptable”. On the contrary, when we are with friends we show elements of our personality that are completely invisible at work. However, when we get trapped in narrow personas, we always feel that a part of us is missing. Instead of an integrated whole self, we accept a narrow simplified version of who we are.
The organisational culture plays a significant role to whether someone feels safe to bring her whole self to work.
The impact of the Organisational Models and Culture
Historically, uniforms have defined our professional identity. We were expected to behave in acceptable and predictable ways, and hide all those elements that didn’t fit in. Gradually, apart from uniforms, we started wearing “masks”, and brining less and less of ourselves to work.
In Reinventing Organisations, author Frederic Laloux takes an evolutionary view of organisational models through human history. According to Laloux, humanity historically has gone through step changes, shifting every time to new levels of consciousness. These have brought new break-throughs on how to collaborate and organise more effectively. In every new stage our paradigm adapted to a more a complex reality, based on societal, economic, technological and other parameters. Laloux claims that many of the organisational models we use today are outdated and cannot address the complexity of our world. As such, he recommends a new organisational model that is more human, efficient, and evolutionary. One of the key break-throughs of this new organisational model is striving for wholeness.
A company that promotes a safe, open and trusting environment is likely to enable people to show more of their hidden personality aspects without fear of being penalised, ridiculed or taken advantage of. But even in safe environments it may be difficult for us to show weakness and vulnerability. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to create a deeper connection and more meaningful relationship with others. We need to be striving for wholeness.
As Frederic Laloux has found through his research, there are organisations that have put in place deliberate practices to create a safe environment. In such places, work enables people to discover who they are through the continuous conflict and collaboration with others, and by showing integrity, openness and respect.
The multiple layers of the whole self
The reality is that we are complex. Our self comprises of several different layers that form our rich, diverse and complex personality. From one side, there is our ego, which can be quite dominant. At work, our ego is what drives us to look good, say the right things and try to be successful. From the other side there is our deeper self, which can be overshadowed by our ego. For instance, business meetings are a usual place where egos dominate, with people try to be right and look good.
But even when it comes to our ego, we cut part of it out, limiting ourselves further.
Prominent psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that when it comes to creativity, what distinguishes creative people is that they have complex personalities with integrated contradictory extremes. In other words, they have a wider spectrum of human possibilities. A creative person, depending on the circumstances, can be both aggressive and competitive, restless and quiet, introvert and extrovert, playful and disciplined, masculine and feminine.
Here is the interesting thing. All of us have this wide spectrum but we train ourselves to cultivate one side over the other due to our upbringing or life circumstances. We see our strengths but fail to see their shadow side. Creative people can use both their masculine and feminine energies, moving comfortable between the two. They are not somewhere in the middle but depending on the context they can demonstrate the strengths of both genders in equal capacity.
Our masculine energy reflects our confidence, determination, and action-orientation while our feminine energy reflects our ability to reflect, be vulnerable, care about others. These exist in everyone irrespective of gender, although some might be more obvious or less hidden than others.
Unfortunately, many organisations promote masculinity as the way to success. This forces many of us to hide our concerns, doubts, vulnerabilities, and create a fake world of certainties. In the process of doing that we lose another piece of ourselves.
No limit to how limited we can become
There are also more ways we limit ourselves at work. Although we have an intuitive, emotional, rational and spiritual side, we only bring to work our rationality. We have glorified anything to do with reasoning, forgetting our empathy, intuition, imagination, creativity, playfulness, emotions, and holistic thinking. In addition, we confuse cold logic and arguments with seeing, sensing and understanding. We confuse business success with becoming a calculating robot with no emotional or spiritual side. We mock anything that doesn’t fall into the preconceptions of the industrial era, who regarded humans as cogs in a controlling machine.
However, I believe it is time to take the robot out of the human.
Earlier I mentioned how beginners dance like robots. You might think that this is because they are beginners and don’t know the right moves. But actually it is something more fundamental. Many adults don’t know how to engage their whole self in what they are doing and letting go of their dominant controlling side.
On the contrary, children are more loose and dance well right from the start. Despite their lack of experience, they listen to the music, sense the rhythm, and let their bodies move intuitively. The only difference compared to adults is that they don’t limit themselves. When we grow up we learn how to limit ourselves to fit in, but children don’t have such concerns, experiencing the whole self.
The Johari Window – Improving self-awareness
The Johari Window is a self-awareness technique developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955. It is used to assess and improve self-awareness, communication, co-operation and trust within a group
The Johari Window comprises of 4 areas. These are usually not of the same size, and can change with time as the group works together longer, and people start learning each other.
- Open Area – Information (behaviour, attitude, skills, etc) about ourselves that both we and other know about us. The goal is to have a large open area because this means good understanding of each other and good communication.
- Hidden Area – Things that we know about ourselves but are hidden from others. This area comprises of our secrets, hidden agendas and emotions, fears and anything about ourselves that we purposefully hide from others.
- Blind Spot Area– Things we don’t know about ourselves but others are aware of. This includes traits we have that others see and experience but we are not aware of.
- Unknown Area – Things that neither we nor anyone else know about us. This includes elements of someone’s personality that influence them, an underdeveloped ability or talent, subconscious behaviour
As mentioned, the four areas are never the same and change over time depending on the individual or team. For instance, team members that have been for a long time together usually have a large open area. While newcomers usually have a small open area. Someone can expand their Open Area by asking for feedback, thus reducing their blind spots. Alternatively, they can expand their Open Area by disclosing personal information, thus reducing their hidden area. However this depends on how willing is the individual to accept feedback and open up to others.
Becoming Bright Like a Full Moon
Dancing has enormously helped me discover myself through others and become aware of unknown aspects of it. It helped me develop my social skills, master my non-verbal communication, overcome my shyness, gain confidence, improve my leadership skills, understand my body, and feel more integrated as a person. More importantly, it has helped me discover my creativity and intuition, which were lying dormant for years. It took me many years to realise how much I was missing. Thanks to dancing, I feel as a whole again.
Sometimes we go through life never truly understanding our whole self. We become more like the waxing crescent of the moon, a tiny illuminated sliver, while the rest of it is completely invisible. Yet, deep inside, we all yearn for the bright full moon. Due to the pressures of work, and life, we gradually learn how to keep large parts of ourselves hidden. But it is never too late to unlearn, rediscover who we are, and shine again like a bright full moon.