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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Do you really want to 'bring' your 'whole' self to work?

‘To thine own self be true’, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was advice given by a character (Polonius) who was himself a hypocrite. By assigning this statement to a less than authentic kind of character, perhaps Shakespeare was hinting at the fact that the advice was slightly disingenuous and impractical? Indeed, the advice to just be yourself, especially, say, for a job or promotion interview, tends to be unhelpful and counterproductive.

Your task in a job interview is to make use of your knowledge and experience to secure an offer or get to the next stage. Why wouldn’t you put your best foot forward in a situation you have already decided to put yourself in, which is likely to be competitive, and is, basically, an assessment? Why wouldn’t you treat it like any other test, even like a fitness test, and just do your best, which is not necessarily the same as just being yourself? Which version of myself should I be? The one that responds to my mum in a habitually irritable manner when she (still) treats me like a seven year old? Or the one that is a qualified psychologist?

You can decide whether the job and the organization are really for you in your own time, armed with facts and your experience of the people you meet. Why would you let the interviewer decide it for you, if you want to retain your own agency in the matter?  Some of the keys to successful interviews are research, preparation, selective authenticity, and practice.

Bringing your 'whole self' to work has been popularized and widely discussed in the last few years. However, the psychological construct which is equivalent to a 'whole self' remains elusive in terms of robust definition and an adequate evidence base, as far as I can tell. This does not mean one can't be holistic in one's use of self. That's a different matter.

The 'self' is more an ongoing process of self-construction throughout one's life course which has patterns of preference, sure, but it also easily morphs in differing kinds of social situations. Human beings can be bundles of contradictions. As Walt Whitman expresses beautifully in 'Song of Myself',

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The 'self' is not a simple static object that we carry around with us. Many of us are anyway carrying at least some unhelpful psychological 'baggage'. That is material we probably should not expect our colleagues at work to help us address. To the extent that you have psychological baggage, do you really want to bring that baggage, all that 'unfinished business', in psychotherapeutic parlance, to work? If you do, then do it intentionally, in a way that makes constructive use of your own inner complexity. Ultimately, however, our personal baggage is ours to sort through and deal with as we choose, at the right time, in the right way, with the right support.

I have not seen much compelling evidence that even if you can 'bring' such a thing as a 'whole self' somewhere, that you can or should bring it to your work, or workplace. In fact, there may be some very significant personal and organizational risks associated with people attempting to do this in a way which lacks adequate self-awareness, empathy, and a sense of service to the organization's purpose.

It is possible that some individuals might even damage their reputation and their career by making themselves so vulnerable that the wrong people do in fact unconsciously or consciously judge them for being too open. As an aside on this point, social media seems to have exacerbated some peoples' tendency to 'overshare'. Social media 'feeds' are mostly just rivers of unintentional, unedited, and often banal over communication, with an inbuilt ability to flood the senses and trigger emotional reaction. Our feeds rarely encourage or enable rigor, depth, complex or critical thought.

There are in reality very few organizations - if any - where the tendency to judge others or exhibit bias has been eradicated. Diversity is valued in many places, certainly rhetorically, not only for social justice reasons, but also because it has been linked to performance and creativity. In practice congruence also matters for performance and creativity.

Most big organizations I have dealt with in the last twenty-five years are essentially conformist, not places where true individualism, idiosyncrasy, or eccentricity, thrives. This makes sense. If workplaces weren't at least a little conformist, then there would be no common standards of desired behaviour. There lies a natural paradox all organizations are constantly reconciling.

It is most likely that extreme authenticity has its limitations, and certain boundaries to authenticity are probably helpful, especially in professional settings. Certainly, employers should not pressurize people to share things about themselves which they would prefer to keep private, if these aspects of themselves have nothing to do with the work at all.

It is up to me to decide whether certain aspects of myself or my life, are, basically, none of your business, if you are a client, customer, business partner, or work colleague.

Far more realistic and workable is the idea that there are many aspects of yourself which are likely to be useful, or helpful - you can put yourself to work for highest impact and service to others. That is certainly what we should expect from anyone in a leadership role.

This is easy to say, but not necessarily natural to everyone. There are many barriers to making best and highest use of ourselves at work. These barriers are often internal but they manifest in various ways, often as a lack of congruence in leadership behaviour, or even a lack of self-confidence. In business jargon, 'executive presence' has become the catch-all for the seemingly mystical aura that a leader tends to exhibit when dealing with others, and especially when they are under pressure.

Let's not conflate presence of this kind with 'gravitas', a dated idea of which I am deeply suspicious because it is just another behavioural straitjacket for leaders. Gravitas is loaded with all sorts of bias. Modern leadership isn't like being an ancient Roman senator, or a imperial Chinese Han dynasty bureaucrat.

Executive presence, in a psychological sense, is about being available to others in a way that is flexible, agile, and anchored in the 'here-and-now', responding to the needs of a given situation. It can be learned and developed with the right coaching, and, feedback. However, there is no obvious 'competence' framework for it because everyone has their own way of being in the world, and each person's presence has different effects on people. Presence requires attention to blind spots, and real-time practice at communicating in a way that is at once energizing and also reassuring, consistent with the needs of a leadership role.

Working on executive presence can help organizations with all sorts of challenges, in particular the ability to engage, energize, and enable people. It is a feature of effective relationships between leaders, between leaders and their teams, external relationships with customers, and the ability to execute transformation efforts well.


The development of executive presence can be done through group coaching workshops which are largely content-free but rich in 'action learning'. It helps if leaders can experience each other and share how they 'show up' in different kinds of situations. This needs to be done in a safe environment which allows them to take some risks.

I will leave you with a couple of questions for your own reflection:

How can you develop your presence, have the effect you need or want to have, and still remain 'authentic' - true to your own values?

How can you make use of yourself as an instrument for change?




For future leaders, and senior leaders.

Targeted business outcomes: stronger pipeline of future leaders with the right impact on stakeholders and teams, better alignment of organization with strategic priorities.

-        Learn about how leadership is embodied and use body language with greater effect.

-        Develop better self-awareness about leadership presence and intent vs effect.

-        Build personal power and presence through experiential exercises and feedback.


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