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Why Bringing Your Whole Self To Work Matters

“Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all personal.”

— Sheryl Sandberg

“Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.” —Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg’s message of openness and empathy may come across as a self-serving schtick. Yet since she’s one of the most powerful women in business, you can’t just dismiss her as the Chief Emoting Officer particularly as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook with a market value of US$425 billion, the world’s fifth-largest company affects the daily lives of its almost two billion users.

There’s also her harder-to-quantify role as this decade’s leading culture shifter in the long slog toward a corporate reality in which winning doesn’t require posing as a man. Sandberg has long been known for encouraging people to 'bring their whole self to work'.

Decades ago, pioneering feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem pointed out that compartmentalising domestic and professional spheres was a way for men to stay in charge. Because women can’t hide the fact that they’re pregnant or breastfeeding, simply being female looked unprofessional. And as long as problems related to child care and other forms of domestic labour – traditionally the purview of women – weren’t seen as work, public policies would never change and women would never become part of political decision-making.

The foremothers of today’s female CEOs organised women to become a vocal force asserting that their issues were collective ones, but over the years the pace of change slowed. Sandberg, in her blockbuster bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (co-written by Nell Scovell) and through her non-profit LeanIn.Org, picked up the thread, encouraging women to get together online and in person to share the struggles and feelings involved in bridging those still-present divides.

Sandberg’s central management message was a compelling one: “Bring your whole self into work.” The slightly paradoxical idea was for women to drop their professional facades and convey vulnerability to better connect with colleagues and customers, while at the same time acting with the confidence needed to rise in the workplace.

And it seems she was right with Brene Brown's work also espousing 'you can't get to courage without being vulnerable'.

Sandberg's more recent book. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, takes that cause even further, moving workday anguish over setbacks such as divorce, disease and death from solo crying in the office car park to company hallways, conference rooms and boardrooms.

After Sandberg's own life experience of becoming a widow and the single mother of a primary-school-age son and daughter, she experienced human vulnerability in a way she couldn’t control.

“If I believed before Dave died in bringing your whole self to work, what I learned after Option B is you have no choice,” she says during an interview at Facebook. “When your whole self is going through adversity and tragedy, that whole self comes to work.”

We all hold multiple identities, and the intersections of these identities are what makes us whole. We all have identities that are more uniquely prominent to us, and those that might become more prominent over time and in different situations. All of these identities make us who we are, and all bring strengths and challenges.

When we’re restricted or feel like we need to hide parts of our identities due to the realities of fear or threat of violence, losing our job or disconnected from family, friends, and community, we retreat. We can feel isolated. Our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health suffers, and we can feel lost, angry, numb, and hopeless.

In order to feel like complete, whole people, and like our true selves, we need to be able to be, and express, all parts of ourselves. When we are able bring our full, authentic selves to work, school, our spiritual being, at home, and in the world, that’s when we thrive. That’s when we feel free. That’s when are able to be our best selves and come up with our most innovative ideas.

Encouraging a culture of inclusion and celebrating differences comes down to values. What are the values of your workplace, school, faith community, at home, and are they lived values? Living our values is where inclusion becomes reality.

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