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Exploring the Self at Work

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

As I’ve been looking at companies I might want to work for after college, there are a few phrases that I like to see in terms of company culture. One of the main ones for me is the claim that you can “bring your whole self” to work. In my experience of positive organizations, I like when people can show up as they are in each moment, sharing the good and the bad in their lives, if they so choose.

I wonder if it’s so simple, though. Who is my whole self? This likely isn’t a huge revelation, but I don’t present myself exactly the same when I’m interacting with my friends, my family, my supervisors — I doubt anyone does. I don’t think I’d want to interact with all of these people in the same way. BetterUp suggests that we might then think of bringing our whole selves to work in this way:

“What it does mean is that the ‘you at work’ should also be recognizable to and coherent with the ‘you at home.’ There shouldn’t be a personality change — if you’re enthusiastic and outgoing at home, that’s how your coworkers should know you, too. It enables us to show ourselves, our coworkers, and managers who we are, not just what we do.”

The Authenticity Paradox

When we continue to explore these ideas, we arrive at another organizational culture buzzword: authenticity. While sometimes we hear it as an organizational pillar, oftentimes we think of authenticity in terms of leadership — what does it mean to be an authentic leader?

Organizational behaviorist Herminia Ibarra tackles the complexities of this question in her work on what she terms the Authenticity Paradox. Ibarra particularly studies leaders facing “the moments when you realize that whatever made you successful in the past or got you there will not make you successful going forward and might even get in your way.” This sort of predicament is especially common when people transition into leadership positions because of their demonstrated technical skill.

Society lauds the authentic leader, but Ibarra finds that sometimes the desires for authenticity can limit growth in these new leadership roles:

“What’s tricky about these transition points is not that the new skills are hard to learn, it’s that the old ones have become core to our sense of who we are, our identity. As a result, not sticking with them feels like we’re somehow being inauthentic and so we do — and we get stuck.”

Instead, Ibarra advocates for leaders to focus on their growth by experimenting with their leadership experiences, working on different projects with different people in different ways. Leaders can then reflect on what strategies they might like to adopt and how. Ibarra suggests that leaders can thus benefit from a flexible understanding of themselves as learning and growing:

“An important part of growing as a leader is viewing authenticity not as an intrinsic state but as the ability to take elements you have learned from others’ styles and behaviors and make them your own.”

How We Portray Ourselves

If authenticity isn’t grounded in habits or actions, how might we understand it? As I explore this question for myself, I find myself guided by my values. I started puzzling about this idea of authenticity after attending Laura Huang’s talk on her research in self-presentation. I wondered if this strategic way of approaching interactions with others invoked a layer of artifice, but I come back to the realization that we, as complex human beings, don’t have — and shouldn’t have — one sense of self that we present in the same way in every situation. But we can anchor our self-presentation in our values. As BetterUp suggests,

“Success requires interacting with other people. We can’t control the other side of those interactions. But we can think about how the other person might see us and make choices about what we want to convey.”

We can think about resumes as a classic example of figuring out how we want to portray ourselves professionally. I used to hate the idea of a resume. I felt that with such a defined form, it was impossible to convey any sense of who I really am on that single page. Yes, there are certain rules you have to follow with a resume, in almost all cases — first off, you have to have one, and it should be one page, and it should be formatted in a certain way, at least if you’re applying to companies that put your resume through a screening software.

But in the last few years, I’ve come to make some choices about how I present myself on my resume that are aligned with my values. I list my VIA character strengths because I believe in strengths-based leadership and positive organizational tools. I include some of my hobbies in order to give a fuller sense of who I am because I think organizations should hire whole people and not just a set of skills. I don’t include my address because it’s no longer necessary and might open applicants up for discrimination about where they live. I’ve made all of these little tweaks to make my resume feel authentic to my values, while still presenting myself following professional guidelines.

I don’t know if it’s possible to bring my whole self to work because I’m not sure who my whole self is or if such a thing even exists. But as long as I allow myself to learn and grow while being true to my values, I’m being my authentic self. No matter what stage of work we’re at, whether we’re submitting resumes, going on interviews, doing our daily tasks, or moving up in our organizations, there are strategies we can use to show up authentically in terms of our values. Someone who values giving back to the community might list their volunteering and community organizing efforts on their resume, ask about an organization’s philanthropic activities in an interview, participate in a shadowing program showing a student the ropes of their role, and institute a company-wide food drive. Someone else who particularly values educational opportunities might provide a list on their resume of the ad hoc courses they’ve pursued, seek companies that provide tuition assistance, create stretch goals for themselves, and introduce a new organizational habit of starting meetings off with a share-out of one new thing each person has learned. Whatever our values might be, we can infuse them into every aspect of our work, enriching our own experiences and that of those around us.

Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.


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