Bringing Vulnerability and Your Whole Self to Work

That’s me (2nd from right) with my dad and three siblings circa 1976.

Earlier this year, I lost my father to cancer. It was a deeply emotional time for me, and I struggled with how much to reveal to my coworkers — people I like immensely but weren’t in my inner circle. On the day he passed, I took a deep breath and sent a very personal message revealing my sadness and a bit about my family.

Excerpt from my email to my coworkers.

You would have thought I was writing a memoir for how much I debated what to say and whether or not to reveal so much of myself. But their response was amazing. It instantly deepened my connection to everyone I sent it to, and there is now an undercurrent of trust in those relationships that wasn’t there before.

It was a powerful reminder of how being vulnerable and bringing your whole self to work can actually make you both more productive and happier. But how many of us actually do it?

There are many books and much research supporting the fact that being your best, most complete self helps you be productive and happy at work. Yet the myth of showing strength — or lack of vulnerability — persists. But no one is immune from the toll of time + work + life, and while many of us try to be, no one is superhuman. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what being yourself at work means for you and why it’s so important.

The Reality: People see your limitations long before you do.

Letting yourself be vulnerable — at least to some people at work — gives space for them to give you compassionate support and make whatever the situation is better. This is especially hard for women, minorities, and anyone in a leadership position, but it’s that much more important if they’re going to get the support they inevitably need.

Real Life: An executive I work with recently confronted his CEO about a plan that was known to be in shambles by his fellow VPs but was never acknowledged. The CEO’s response? Relief because he could finally ask for the help and support he needed from his team. He’d been worrying about it for weeks, not sure what to do because he was the CEO and expected himself to have answers before getting the team involved. But as soon as he admitted he needed help, it came flooding in.

Bringing your whole self to work is hard — especially the softer side.

Your whole self means the parts of you that aren’t necessarily your professional side, but the parts of you that are human and let others feel emotionally connected to a real person vs. a professional persona. It often feels really hard, especially if you’re a company leader (or a private or quieter person), but know this more emotional, softer side doesn’t mean you’re soft — it simply means you maintain approachability so people feel comfortable coming to you as a person, even when it’s tough. This is extremely important for harder conversations — a group is underperforming, people are suffering from difficult personal circumstances, or harassment by coworkers is in the mix.

But ‘whole self’ is a balance: it does not mean drinking a beer at 10 a.m. to get code flowing (although you probably have a problem worth talking about), rather it means being willing to share parts of you that may not obviously have a role at work but are important in people ‘getting you’ as a person. It’s context that lets them connect to and trust you.

Real Life: At our Seat @ the Table event in May, I posed the question to the panel if they were able to bring their whole selves to work. The VP and CEO present said they always felt able to fully be themselves. Three different VPs in the audience who spoke with me afterward said they didn’t believe the answer. Those panelists were more professionally confident, without a doubt, but as senior leaders themselves, the VPs simply knew how difficult it is to be your whole self at work all the time. As someone who knows the VP and CEO outside of work, I can vouch there are warm and softer aspects of both women that I don’t always see in their professional personas.

Unplugging is powerful — for your brain and your humanity.

The need for mental downtime is well documented. As Scientific American wrote: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.” Meaning, you can’t be your complete self unless you take time outside of work to downshift and give your brain a break.

Real Life: A CEO recently told me he is taking only four days of vacation this year — and he defended it as being enough time because it’s more than he’s taken off in years. It’s well supported by researched and, anecdotally, I also know people generally don’t feel like they can detach from work and really unwind in anything less than a week, with the ‘ideal’ vacation length — defined as optimizing for happiness and relaxation ROI — being more like eight days.

Remember when Professor Robert Kelly’s live BBC interview was crashed by his kids wandering into his office? The world loved it, and to his credit, he embraced it and his humanity. Modern attitudes and methods of work have never made it easier to be your whole self (home office anyone?) while also being a successful professional. So take a moment to breathe and remind yourself — being your whole self will make you better at work.

What can you do to feel like more of the complete you is able to show up at work?