The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

How to be yourself at work

How to be yourself at work


It’s natural for us to adopt the mannerisms of our work place; to become the decision maker, broker or peace-keeper. But what do we lose if we only bring just one part of ourselves to the office?

Why we need to bring our whole selves to work, and three ways we can start do more of this.

“What it really takes for us to be fulfilled and successful is an ability to bring our whole selves to work. All of who we are. All the gifts, all the talents, the fears, the doubts, the insecurities, our heart, our soul, the things that matter most to us. But what that involves for us as individuals, and also for companies and organisations of various sizes, is actually a lot of courage.”

Mike Robbins
Author and thought leader
TEDxBerkley talk

We arrive at work. We turn our computers on (probably the kettle too). We take off our coats. We put our work personas on.

It’s easier, to adopt a ‘work-self’, isn’t it?

What do we lose when we leave our whole selves at the door?

To follow unspoken rules that we work in a certain way, that we assume the language and mannerisms of our organisation. To follow a prescribed set of meetings with the same agenda. After all, there’s safety in conventionality.

But what do we lose when we leave our whole selves at the door?

It means that we risk dividing ourselves into exponentially smaller parts. We’re this person to our boss, another to our team, yet another to peers. We’re the decision maker, delegator, partner, sounding board, risk taker, crisis averter…and this, this is exhausting.

It also means that we work in ways that don’t tap into our very best selves, and what we as our best selves, could offer our organisation – more commitment, energy, passion, innovativeness.

With increasing focus (and rightly so) on our mental health, and at a time when higher education collectively is finding its feet in a more competitive world, encouraging ways to be more open, more of ourselves at work, could unlock greater trust and more inventive ways to tackle these challenges head on.

Shedding work armour and embracing vulnerability

“You are entitled to feel like a human, rather than a cog in a machine”

Workforce Scotland

Bringing more of yourself to work is a scary prospect. There’s the worry that you will change perceptions of yourself, perceptions that you may have intentionally set. You may want to impress others, and your work-self is the armour you adopt to do that.

Vulnerability [is] the key driver in human trust and connection…

Yet by shedding your work armour, you release the potential to connect with people in more meaningful and enduring ways. Rather than weakening perceptions, it allows stronger relationships to be forged as people come to understand more about the way you think and the way you thrive.

Mike Robbins, in his TEDx talk ‘Bring your whole self to work’ discusses the link that we make between vulnerability and weakness. That somewhere in the back of our minds, this word implies some kind of fragility. But in fact:

“Vulnerability [is] the key driver in human trust and connection…it’s the birthplace of innovation, of change, risk, of all the things that are most important to us”.

Creating an environment in which people feel nurtured and appreciated, not just for what they do but for who they are, allows us to take risks. To ask questions. To make changes that will bring innovation and champion new ways of being.

So, how do you be yourself at work?

Ask questions. Lots of them.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach: we all start our journey from different perspectives and places. However, time, practice, and the support to reveal more of who you are and what matters to you to the people you trust in the workplace are good starting points. Finally, you might like to try these:

Identify what matters to you

What are the things that drive and inspire you in your professional and personal life? Are these distinctly separate, or is there commonality?

We recently featured the leadership narrative of Dr Jane Rand, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at York St John University. In her blog, she told us where she came from, and how that shapes her values and who she is now.

Channel more creativity

Give yourself and the people you work with the room to be more creative. Do this in a structured way and this will help to unlock different ways of seeing a common opportunity or problem. For instance, try starting a meeting with a creative prompt, such as reading a student’s story or asking each person to contribute a piece of news, or an aspect of a project, or a piece of work, that they are excited about.

Ask questions

Finally, ask questions. Lots of them. Ask yourself, and share them with your colleagues. Here are some examples just to get you thinking:

Where are the situations in your life where you want to take risks?
Where do you find yourself holding back?
What’s happened this week that has had the most meaning for you?
What’s caused you the biggest concern?
What makes an ordinary day a good day?

Further reading

Bring yourself to work campaign, Workforce Scotland
Bring your whole self to work, by Henna Inman,
Bring your whole self to work, Mike Robbins TEDxBerkely talk
Why you need to put your real self in your professional image, by Minda Zetlin,

By Louise Clifton

Louise is the Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’s passion is to help people bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.

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