I know of nothing more valuable, when it comes to the all-important virtue of authenticity, than simply being who you are – Charles R. Swindoll
There’s a well-worn trope from the Superman story where mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, runs out of the revolving door at the entrance to the Daily Planet and, as it swiftly spins around, he is transformed into the Man of Steel and flies off to save the Earth from yet another dastardly evildoer.
This particular story came up early last year during a conversation I had with my good pals, David D’Souza and Alison Germain. It was in the context of what it means to be human at work and the factors of organisational life that are de-humanising and therefore stop us reaching our full potential. Alison coined the term “the Reverse Superman Effect”. In the more familiar scenario, our Wonderwomen and Supermen run in through the revolving door and are transformed into meek, hollowed-out shells of their real selves. Devoid of emotion, meaning and purpose.
Since that conversation, the notion of bringing our whole selves to work has become part of the mainstream dialogue about how to improve the lot of working humans. I’ve thought quite a lot about it since and a particular omission has started to trouble me. On the face of it, this idea has huge appeal. And it’s been of particular interest to me since I started to get, in a very small way, involved in mental health issues and the need for people who work in businesses to break down the culture of fear and silence about these issues in the workplace.
I find it inarguable that suppressing emotion, personality, beliefs and behaviours can be damaging “not only to your morale but also your health.” Of course, this only works in cases where those beliefs and behaviours are not injurious to others or to the effective operation of a business. Spend any time on social media and you’ll find, lurking behind the relative anonymity of the internet, in uncomfortably large numbers, some of the most venal, unpleasant beliefs and behaviours you’re likely to come across. I’ve seen a number of examples recently of people brought to the brink of tears by the revelation that someone they are close to has expressed the most appalling of beliefs on Facebook. Of people who suppressed a part of themselves because they feared to let it be known that they did not care for David Bowie or Amy Winehouse or Lemmy.
And this is the bit about “bringing our whole selves to work” that I’ve not seen discussed. The people I’ve described above do not bring their whole selves to work (and in many cases for good reason). So where is the line? What level of discomfort can we accept? Is it that some people get fed up with photos of other people’s kids being shared around the office? Misanthropy? Atheism? Fox hunting? Gun control? Racism? Religious fundamentalism? Who decides who gets to bring their whole selves?
Is it only for “people like us”?