3 min read

Bringing your whole self to work is a distraction

A mix of fluid and intricate forms, using a palette of pastel colors typical of the rococo style.

There are two ideas here, both with which I agree, but they are connected in a way I hadn’t realised until recently.

On one side is the mantra that organisations should aspire to be teams, not families. The former focuses on performance and achieving collective goals, while the latter implies inseverable ties and focuses on maximising the wrong thing. Families try to ensure everyone gets a fair go and optimise for stability (e.g. chores are divided evenly, toys are shared, and if there’s only enough money for one ice cream then no-one gets any ice cream). Conversely, teams roll out of bed because of a sense of shared responsibility in striving towards objectives everyone on the team agrees are important. Decisions that set the team back in this quest aren’t and shouldn’t be well received, such as keeping someone on despite demonstrated poor performance.

All this is an easy sell for those who run organisations. But if you’re not in that position and are still sceptical, consider the view that organisations that self-describe as “close-knit” or ”like a big family” may be trying to manipulate you.

Some leaders try to sell the workplace as a foster “family” to create loyalty and belonging. They like to think of their workplaces as families and sell it as such. They use this metaphor to foster a sense of loyalty and belonging among their employees.

But this can have serious drawbacks for their happiness, productivity, and even their morality. When work becomes family, the lines between personal and professional, work and life, blur. Employees may feel pressured to conform, sacrifice, or compromise for the sake of the “family”. They may also lose sight of their own goals, values, and boundaries.

The second idea is more novel: a repudiation of the “bring your whole self to work” trope. Similarly to the “our team is like a family” platitude, this starts innocently enough — colleagues shouldn’t feel pressured to oppress their identity, and teams work better when they’re transparently diverse. It's an admirable goal, but as Bartleby points out, “any idea that covers so much ground is bound to have holes in it, and this one would make a colander blush.”

The qualm here is similar to the team = family issue. There are characteristics about all of us that we purposely dial down at work because our better senses prevail in the pursuit of the team’s collective objectives. I may get the urge to fire up Steam in the middle of the day and dominate some noobs in Age of Empires VI (jk, I’m barely Silver III), but I shoo away this urge as I still have more clicking to do in Asana for the next 3 hours. Further, I’d argue it’s disingenuous for organisations to ask their staff to bring their whole selves to work. Bartleby puts it better than I can:

Any job that involves a uniform is by definition asking employees to subsume their personalities, not express them. When times are tough or performance is shoddy, an employee is an individual second and a line item in the budget first. If the circumstances require it, he will be asked to leave and take his whole self with him.

The link between these two ideas should be clear now. Asking team members to bring their whole selves to work is akin to asking them to treat each other as family. It’s a harmful distraction from what people are there to achieve, hopelessly trying to merge the Venn diagram of work and life which has worked pretty well for us so far. I suspect that the non-profit sector, where I currently work, is at most risk of falling into these traps due to its propensity to market itself as a warm and fuzzy antidote to the private sector’s hostile and fiercely competitive forces. Non-profits are trying to solve problems all too important to allow themselves to succumb to these fallacies.