You might say we have many “selfs.” There’s the self you wear for home, and the one you wear at work. The one you wear in public at school and with your everyday friends. Then there’s the one you wear privately with your spouse and your best friend.
What self are you “wearing” right now? Are you wearing the self you want to be? If not, what self do you want to wear? Why are you wearing a different self now than the one you want to wear? Can you even control the self you wear at any particular moment? And does the self you wear now affect how others respond to you and how you respond to them?
It sure does! In fact, as a leader, you’re responsible for putting forth your best self at any given moment. What does that mean? It means you cannot let the complexity and intensity of your personal and professional life influence how you interact with employees and customers.
Is that even possible? One of my least favorite phrases is, “leave your personal life at home.” We’re human, and we cannot compartmentalize everything in our lives AND wear the perfect self at each moment. Sh*t happens and affects who we are and how we interact with others. Whether you’re working in an office, at home, or in a hybrid work environment it’s exceedingly difficult to separate the effect of what happens in one realm from another. Think about it. How often do you fail to turn off work when you return to your home life? What happened at work today, which made you feel uncomfortable, will show up at home as stress like a stiff neck, impatience with your partner, rude behavior with your neighbor, and so on. So, what do we do to make the best of being human, especially as leaders?
We need trust, more than anything else, before we can express our genuine self at any particular moment. Trust is the willingness of one person expressing vulnerability in front of others without fear of judgement. Everyone is vulnerable in one way or another. We’ve suffered developmental problems, personal incapacities, disadvantaged social status, and more during our lives. Keeping these and other vulnerabilities hidden prevents us from expressing our true self. The moment we have trust, we can express our authentic self, which allows us to promote beneficial conflict to improve ideas, encourage input from those who seek to be heard, and unite individuals in a shared understanding of an objective and achieving it.
Leadership must maintain trust within the work environment, providing psychological safety, or a place where team members can safely take interpersonal risks. A place where no one punishes or humiliates others for speaking up, making mistakes, talking about their own well-being, and so on.
So, when you go to work after your spouse says she’s leaving you, it’s unlikely you’re wearing your best self required to manage your project team successfully. However, while you don’t have to share every personal life detail with your team, you owe it to them to explain your home life is difficult right now, making it clear that you’re distracted at present while working together on the project.
If you work in an environment with little trust or you choose to keep whatever’s affecting you a secret, just know the cost of non-disclosure is often greater than revealing the truth. Concealment doesn’t really exist. It just means you’ll disclose in destructive or unintended ways. For example, secrets live large in our minds, preoccupying and distracting us from doing our best at work and elsewhere. Team members see the self you’re wearing, suspect you’re concealing something, feel they can’t trust you, reducing individual and team performance.
Paradoxically, unsolicited disclosure has the opposite effect. While we tend to overemphasize the negative outcomes of our own personal disclosures, when a teammate reveals an unsolicited personal vulnerability, they build trust dramatically. This means we value one another’s contributions, caring about everyone’s well-being.
For example, when the project leader reveals his wife just left him, it catapults him and the team into a genuine connection and deeper relationship. This leader has the courage to be himself, inviting direct reports to do the same.
A workplace environment based on trust is the most important driver for team psychological safety. Creating a workplace where you can disclose your vulnerabilities without fear of reprisals results in greater team support. This support environment fosters a team that asks for help, shares suggestions, challenges the status quo, innovates, and adapts to change, unlocking the key to creating value on behalf of the team participants, their organization, and its customers.
This is not about trying to diagnose an individual’s psychological condition to prescribe a treatment that may or may not help. Maintaining trust and ensuing psychological safety is an organizational approach that lets you display one of your many selfs without fear, receive support when needed, and empower everyone to do their best.
Brene Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” December 23, 2010, Houston, Texas, TEDx, 20.03 minutes, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en.