The Real Dangers of Hiding Our Whole Selves at Work: An Interview with Dorie Clark

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, December 8th 2015

As NQ has been pursuing the theme of “Whole” this quarter – what it means to have whole organizations and fill them with whole people, we sat down with Dorie Clark, known expert in distinguishing ourselves and our ideas, and best-selling author of Stand Out.  

Many organizations struggle with how to access people’s fullest potential and passions. Yet most research on employee satisfaction and engagement would suggest the efforts are falling short, despite most experts agreeing that people being their most authentic selves is a critical element to job performance and satisfaction. “It’s nice for individuals to feel like they can be themselves, but it’s more than just nice for the organization. It’s what drives business results. Studies clearly show when professionals feel comfortable being authentic at work, they concentrate better on work, and their performance and contribution increases,” says Clark. 

There are many risks to both individuals and organizations of people showing up to work without their best game on. Here are some of them.

  1. Distraction from the important things “When employees don’t feel comfortable, their attention is distracted. They are spending more time focused on managing and concealing their identity and less time on their work. It lowers productivity and performance. Concealing yourself takes a psychic toll.” It’s not just minority employees for whom this is a major issue. The studies show that 45% of white males don’t feel comfortable being themselves at work, and spend time covering their true identity. The Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion report, Uncovering Talent, reveals that 61% of all employees “cover” their identities in some way – not necessarily hiding something, but downplaying it for fear of drawing unwanted attention or making others uncomfortable.

  2. Loss of confidence and increased fear Some research that shows how certain populations of people are more predisposed to hide some parts of themselves at work, feel a fear of exposure. “Sometimes there is a bona fide legal fear – despite laws to protect minorities like LGBT people, there is still fear of being fired.” Covering isn’t just hiding your identity, it’s also downplaying who you really are. It could be minority employees avoiding being near other like minority employees so they don’t get labeled or associated as “just that” minority.  Clark says, “They may fear that certain elements of their professional background would get “held against” them and prevent promotion or opportunity.” People feel pressured to adhere to unspoken standards of what looks to be getting promoted or advanced. “We need environments where people don’t have to fear contorting themselves to adhere to those unspoken scripts to succeed.”

  3. Career stagnation and isolation Research says that closeted employees (whether LGBT or minority) feel more isolated and stagnated in their careers. “The irony is that they feel in a worse position because if you are shutting down and isolated, others feel more distant from you as much as you feel from them. You appear aloof and inaccessible.” The very disconnection people sought to avoid they actually run right into. Trust and authenticity in relationships is the basis of success in organizations. “If people feel they don’t know you, they don’t know where you’re coming from, and find it difficult to trust you.”

  4. Arresting creativity and ideation  When a company implicitly sends a message that there is only one correct way of thinking or being in their workplace, it limits the options of what’s possible for that organization. Companies inadvertently shut down new ideas and make it less likely that the full talent and perspectives of employees will be tapped. “They might be able to execute well on one matrix, but it could be a recipe for disaster if you fail to take off your blinders and see the landscape around you is changing – you could be taking a straight dive into obsolescence.” 

    There are important steps organizations can take to ensure their people confidently bring all of themselves, and their talents and ideas, to the workplace. Topping that list, of course, are the leaders themselves. “Leaders have to model for the organization disclosing who they are and their own stories. Leaders who are willing to share the struggles and adversity of their own journey, will set the stage for others feeling safe doing the same.”

    Measurement plays a critical part of how well organizations stay on top of how well they are fostering authenticity. Using analytical tools to interrogate what they are doing within the organization and the messages and norms they are reinforcing. “If “every best person for the job” looks the same, you may not be reinforcing the need to allow wider ranges of people to excel or advance.” Most companies espouse the desire to have a diverse and inclusive workforce, but fail to understand what they are doing to undermine that. 

    Beyond measuring, the data you collect has to have accountability within performance systems of the organization. There have to be consequences to the data – both positive and negative. So, once you have honestly looked analytically at what the organization is doing, you have meaningful actions to take to make sure improvements can actually happen in areas where under performance exists.

    In an age where joining organizations is quickly becoming the employment option of last resort, organizations must aggressively ensure that the people they bring in feel confident showing up with all of themselves to the job at hand. 

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