Bring Your Real, Whole Self to Work

“Welcome to your new job; we are glad you’ve joined our team! We value you, or more accurately, we really value your brain and your physical body. And we know you agree that it’s important to leave any other aspects of yourself at home. Any other identities, different abilities, sense of intuition, spirit, relationships, and emotions should not be part of our workplace. We hired you because we could tell that you fit this culture and will carry on the great traditions of professionalism set by our founder. We know you’ll protect our cultural norms and suppress any aspects of yourself that don’t support our way of working because you are a team player. Again, welcome to the team!”


It’s hard to imagine an organization being this blunt, but the underlying message is not so far-fetched. In fact, in countless subtle ways employees receive the clear message each day that some parts of their real selves are welcome at work and other parts are decidedly not.

But what a loss, because it is from our wholeness as human beings that we can make our greatest contributions. When I am accepted and welcomed for who I am, I not only feel comfortable enough to engage, but I have at my disposal the richness of my whole self to draw from to solve problems, create new products, improve processes, and better serve diverse customers.

But when we are told to leave huge parts of ourselves at home because those parts are different, distracting or too messy, we become fearful and withdrawn, and then our organizations miss out on the best we have to offer.

What exactly do I mean by our real and whole selves? This is captured in the acronym INSPIRE. This framework reminds us that human beings have Identities, and are iNtuitive, Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and Emotional. All of these are essential aspects of our human nature and sources of wisdom, insight, and brilliance.

All these facets of you INSPIRE your work making it distinctive. For example, the fact that a team member has an autistic brother, and is Latinx, moved many times growing up, and now loves to coach soccer gives that person a unique set of insights and skills that infuse their work.

We need to fully value how our experiences and insights as human beings give brilliance to our work. Once we see that in ourselves, then we can better see and value that in our colleagues, and ultimately invite others to bring their real and whole selves to work too.

This is really the heart of diversity and inclusion, seeing that differences are strengths and the source of amazing contributions we all want to make and that we desperately need from each other. We have difficult social problems to solve – the opioid crisis, climate change, homelessness, healthcare, and more. When we truly comprehend how differences create more and varied options for solving problems, then we will actively and enthusiastically seek to build teams that are diverse. We will actively include real and whole humans in their fullness. We won’t tell anyone to leave themselves at the door because we seriously need them to bring everything they’ve got. 

Real People: Real Insights

In a recent gathering of A Human Workplace, participants reflected on ways their identities, experiences, and passions contribute to their work as public servants. Here are some of the statements they shared:

  • My insights from being on the spectrum give me insights into being open.

  • My insights from having been homeless give me insights into the cycle of poverty.

  • My experience as a cook informs my ability to manage my time at work.

  • My experiences moving across the country make me better at understanding and connecting with communities in my work.

  • My insights from being a mom give me insights to develop people to reach their full potential.

  • My skills at playing music help me to rock at work!!!

  • Being Wiccan helps me increase my compassion for others with differences who are sometimes harshly judged.

  • My insights caring for my elderly parents give me insights into others’ family responsibilities.

  • My knowledge of molecular pharmacology is useful in designing business processes.

  • My experiences with loss and rejection make me better at being compassionate with our customers.

Let’s take a closer look at the INSPIRE framework and consider the importance of each aspect of our humanity.

Identities – Each human is a unique and complex collection of identities that include race, gender, sexual orientation and identification, ability, religion, age, and national origin, as well as identities based on key life experiences, backgrounds, passions, roles, and skills. These create a one-of-a-kind mosaic of identities that are sources of brilliance, insight, and valued contributions.

iNtuition – Our human understanding sometimes comes through instinct rather than a conscious sense of knowing. This can be closely tied to our cultural experiences. People of different backgrounds and experiences will instinctively know for example, that a product or service, a term, or a way of approaching someone will resonate or repel a particular group of customers. It’s wise to listen.

Spirit – We humans grapple with questions of meaning and seek purpose beyond ourselves, in many different ways. We hold these beliefs closely and this sense of purpose and related values often inspire our work. Organizations understandably worry that opening to religion could be too perilous to navigate beyond the basic obligations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, providing for reasonable religious accommodations, as well as not making religious practices a condition of employment, nor subjecting employees to a hostile work environment. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, some organizations are exploring how to allow room for the spiritual rather than the religious so as not to transgress critical workplace protections and still honor this aspect of our humanity. This obviously must be navigated with tremendous care and the highest regard for all persons.

Physical Body– We all have physical bodies in need of food, water, exercise, fresh air, play, and sleep. And we have different abilities as well as limitations to our bodies that can also be the source of contributions. The experiences of people with differently-abled bodies hold potential insights not available to people with typically-abled bodies. For example, reading Braille, or navigating the environment using a wheelchair, or using ASL interpreters, could provide frames, metaphors, and inspiration to solve workplace challenges not apparent otherwise as well as providing services to those who are differently-abled.

Intellect – We humans use knowledge and reasoning to arrive at objective understanding. As a society we have historically valued mental prowess, subject matter expertise, and the scientific method. But recently, such expertise and rigorous methods have been dismissed as fake, untrustworthy, or elitist. Organizations, especially governments must uphold and defend these critical sources of reliable and valid information as trustworthy if we are to solve societal problems.

Relationships – Social bonds with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances create the connections needed for neuro-physiological well-being. Healthy workplaces do well to cultivate positive work relationships based on care, trust, and mutual respect. We are more satisfied at work, more likely to engage, and more likely to remain at a workplace when we have healthy social bonds with co-workers. In addition workplaces that acknowledge workers as having relationship obligations outside work and who support workers when they are faced with the critical needs of children, aging parents, or partners.

Emotions – We humans experience positive and negative feelings. This is normal. This is human. Emotions can be a signaling system, a method of communication, and a release valve to avoid illness. We are emotionally intelligent when we learn to observe and identify emotions in ourselves and others, when we understand them as a source of information as well as a human experience, and when we are able to healthfully and appropriately experience, optimize, and regulate them as needed. Expressing the joy of achievement, worry over our position’s uncertain future, hilarity in a shared joke, or disappointment with a colleague’s departure, all these are normal, healthy, and congruent expressions of emotion. Such regulated, reasonable authenticity builds trust and signals safety for others to be real about their feelings and to find ways to manage those emotions that would be disruptive.

The Real Distractions

In Western culture, it is often our intellectual and physical contributions that are highly valued while other aspects of our humanity are seen as detrimental or unprofessional. Organizations worry that people will be distracted from the work, distracted by differences, distracted by emotions, distracted by possible conflicts, distracted by not knowing what to say or do when faced with an unfamiliar identity. After all, the human dynamics can get pretty messy and besides, “We’re here to work!”

But here’s the irony: When we limit the aspects of our humanity that are welcome at work, and when we limit the differences that we embrace, we miss out on the full and amazing contributions of each real individual. When we force people to hide themselves we stunt the organization’s ability to perform and we create a whole other set of distractions and liabilities.

It is distracting for team members to cover up who they are, to deny their identities, and to suppress their experiences. It is distracting for team members to pretend they don’t have emotions or a sense of intuition or a higher purpose or core relationships. Ultimately this pretending creates fear.

If it’s made clear in countless subtle ways that my real self is not welcome, then I have to work really hard to keep myself in check. It’s going to take mental, emotional and physical bandwidth to hide myself, and I’ll live in fear that I might slip. I could lose my influence, miss out on development opportunities, experience social exclusion, or lose my job. So I’m afraid, all the time. 

We may be sensitive to the risks of welcoming real and whole people in all their messy variation and uncertainty, but the greater risk is NOT welcoming real and whole people to work, and losing their important contributions and engagement. We can’t afford that. We’ve got too many problems to solve.

So please, bring your real, whole self to work.