Do your employees bring their whole selves to work? Can they? Can you?
If not, you’re in a lose-lose-lose situation. The first loss is the employee’s—spending half your adult waking hours hiding or masking who you are isn’t going to help you live a fulfilled and satisfying life. The second loss is the company’s—it’s losing those brain cycles people spend masking and filtering, and the creativity that’s dampened by anxiety and a lack of personal centeredness. The third loss is everyone’s—social connections and friendships at work are less likely to develop when people can’t be their whole selves.
The challenge of having a respectful, open company isn’t limited to major attributes of our humanity, like sexual or gender orientation. If people have to hide who they are, how they feel, who they love, what they believe, what worries them, what they struggle with, or what they do in their personal time, everyone loses. In its most toxic form, I’d even argue that workplaces where people can’t bring their whole selves to work are exercising a form of power through silencing.
I can’t know for sure how people at Atomic feel about being able to be themselves at work. But I can point to positive examples I’ve observed, and by doing so, encourage everyone to make our workplaces safe, respectful, loving spaces. Maybe I can inspire us to have higher aspirations than the conventional wisdom around human relationships at work suggests. What I know for sure is that our diversity, fully expressed, makes Atomic a more interesting, satisfying thing to be part of.
Here are some recent examples, published with permission of my colleagues.
- I have two loves that are somewhat unconventional for a 55-year-old, male CEO: Taylor Swift’s music, and babies. I’m pretty sure everyone in the company is well aware of both, and I’ve never felt silly sharing my enthusiasm for either.
- Lisa is a nursing mom. She needs the time, place, and flexibility to express breast milk. We make these affordances so she can be her new-mom-self at work openly, easily, and comfortably.
- Rachael was happy to learn that announcing her engagement at our daily standup meeting was not only fine, but something to be encouraged and celebrated.
- Greg’s wife struggles with a chronic, painful disorder. By virtue of having shared, his colleagues can provide support and understanding.
- Mary dances at her (standup) desk while she listens to music and works. She’s comfortable showing this silly and charming side of herself.
- Kim lost a parent in her second year at Atomic. The time and grace that we could provide, knowing this, helped her get through this sad event and back to her happy, funny, giving self.
- Drew has a one year-old and a spouse in law school. He needs flexibility when daycare is closed, or his son is sick. Being able to share that freely lets his colleagues help out or adjust accordingly.
- Sarah follows a vegan diet. Planning food for company events that she enjoys is a pretty simple matter, once you know her preference.
- Patrick’s intense sports loyalty to his alma mater is well-known. We don’t all understand why someone can care so much about this, but he certainly doesn’t have to hide it.
- Justin’s boyfriend is a regular at company parties. He’s also the best Atomic significant other I’ve ever met when it comes to bringing flowers to his love.
- I indulge my passion for cars by having six of them, and storing them next door to our Grand Rapids office. I definitely get teased (for instance, when I have to borrow a car because I don’t have a key) but I don’t hide this indulgence, and have never felt judged for it.
- Tom is an expert ballroom dancer. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like an unusual hobby for a male software developer, and I’m glad he’s taught me about it.
- Matt’s openly discussed his struggles with depression in the office. That’s allowed his colleagues to help him where they can, and act with more empathy when it impacts his schedule. Even more valuably, by sharing his successes, Matt’s helped educate other Atoms and de-stigmatize mental health challenges.
- Rachael and Lisa had each reached the point of life of wanting to have a baby. They both shared their plans with me before they were pregnant, and in Rachael’s case, before she was even trying, partly from our friendships, partly to help plan for a maternity leave. They brought their “future new mom” selves to work.
- John felt so strongly about a difficult and scary time in his office that he teared up as we discussed it. Being able to be vulnerable may be the ultimate expression of bringing your whole self to work.
The NSFW trilogy
I believe the goal of an inclusive, open company should extend to the three subjects that conventional wisdom definitely says to not talk about at work.
Religious beliefs are an important element of our individuality. In our early days, Atomic had a large percentage of non-believers, including me. This was unusual for the conservative, Christian city where the company was founded. I’m ashamed to admit that religious Atoms probably didn’t feel their faith was something they could express at work, and I was part of the problem.
Politics is the other realm where I don’t think we’ve always done a good job respecting multiple points-of-view. The progressive views held by most Atoms may have made holding conservative views uncomfortable enough to avoid. We can do better here.
Religion, politics, and… whose mind doesn’t automatically complete the trilogy of don’t-discuss-at-work topics?
If you have to hide your sexual or gender identity, you’re much less likely to thrive at work, and in life generally. I’ve learned how important it is that companies make their stance on this sort of discrimination very clear.
Sex and our sexuality is a fraught topic, particularly now, in the middle of the tidal wave of #metoo experiences. How much of this we can bring to work is so complex and scary that it’s tempting to answer “none”. And yet, what could be more essential to who we are as humans than our sexuality?
Though I personally rail against the taboos, hangups, and double-standards many Americans have on the topic of sex, I readily agree that this is one area where extreme sensitivity and caution should be the guide, especially for men, and doubly especially for men in positions of power over women.
I certainly don’t have this figured out. But my gut tells me that if we could be more open about our healthy sexuality, including at work, we would be in a better place as people and society. Maybe we’d even have fewer of the terrible abuses of power that are all too common today.
Beliefs, not goals
The business advantages of having a company where people can bring their whole selves to work are clear. Cascade Engineering is a company I’ve always admired. As Mark Miller, their CEO, puts it, “The Cascade Engineering tent is big enough for everyone. We want and need everyone.” Revenue, repeat business, waste, margin—these are all great business reasons for being a safe and welcoming workplace. But they aren’t the only reasons Atomic (and I’m guessing, Cascade) cares about this issue.
Our actions and aspirations are built on a few beliefs: respect for every human being, the benefits of making meaningful social connections, and enjoyment of the wonderful diversity of humanity. Tolerance, respect, care, and curiosity should guide our interactions as we get to know the people we share our work lives with.
Making it safe, and encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work, is a leader’s responsibility. Taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to people is legalistic, not humanistic. It might feel safer and easier, but it costs you the opportunity to create a win-win-win company. Expedient and cautious aren’t usually our finest moments.
- Leadership in a Time of Pandemic - April 3, 2020
- Software Product Development in a Time of Pandemic - March 16, 2020
- Eleven unquestioned assumptions of business – and why they’re wrong - March 3, 2020
- A framework to define and describe organizational culture - January 21, 2020
- Atomic Ownership, Part 6: Lessons Learned - November 26, 2019