In August I start training for a new career. I’m planning to be a celebrant and my pre-course start assignment is to write the story of my life in 500 words – within 15 words either way. The instructions say, ‘You can write in any style you like, and you can use the first or third person. We will ask you to read part (or all) of your life story aloud as a public speaking exercise, so please don’t include anything you would prefer to keep private.’
This is proving a hard task. I’m wondering what the story of my life is, and how do I tell it in just 500 words? I’ve had a couple of goes at it from various angles and now I’m skimming ‘how to’ guidance and discover there are many books on how to write your life story which I don’t have time to read as I have to submit mine next week.
What makes it hard is there isn’t one story. When I visited my daughter in Beirut I bought a string of prayer beads. There are 33 beads on it and for some reason as I was thinking about my life story I remembered the beads and wondered if I had 33 life stories. I found I had – it was easy enough to list them out – my life as a teacher, my life as a student, etc. They are all ‘me’ at all times – there isn’t a part that I don’t carry with me, though there may be parts that I prefer to keep private.
Mulling this over, led me to remember the poster at work i.e. in the physical office I used to go to, not my new Zoom screen home workplace. The poster proclaims that the goal is to be an organisation ‘where everyone feels able to bring their whole self to work and perform at their best. One that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’
In a blog I wrote last year, I said, ‘Many words and phrases in organisational use puzzle me. ‘Bring your whole self to work’ is a current one, as is ‘empowerment’, and ‘resilience’. They’re possibly ok as concepts, but what do they mean in practice and what are the organisational design implications of them?’
The phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ is particularly odd, in my view. Who doesn’t bring their whole self to work? What bits do they leave somewhere else? I could leave bits out of my written life story but when I go to work, I am automatically bringing my whole self.
I was discussing the phrase, by email, with Chris Rodgers, earlier this week. He says, ‘Good luck in pursuing your challenge to the “bring your whole self to work” mantra. As it continues to gain momentum, we can expect a plethora of books, programmes, diagnostic tests and the rest to appear.
From my perspective, this is another superficially attractive concept that shows little or no understanding of the complex social dynamics of organization. … People can’t do anything but ‘bring their whole selves to work. However they turn up, their actions are always reflections of their whole selves. An individual’s sense of self is a relational phenomenon. It is being perpetually (re)constructed in the moment of their ongoing interactions with other people (both actual and imagined). People, that is, whose own sense of self is similarly being formed and reformed in the midst of their own interactions. There are no pre-existing “true selves” waiting to be discovered, “brought to work,” and applied “authentically”.
Crucially, too, people don’t only bring their ‘whole self’ to work all of the time, they also ‘bring along‘ everyone with whom they have an important relationship. You might recall, from our past exchanges, my notion of people’s “personal frames of reference” through which they strive to maintain all of their important relationships in an acceptable state simultaneously. Maintaining this imaginary and socially constructed frame intact is a key factor affecting people’s in-the-moment participation.
The real challenge, then, is one of managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full. Doing so in the light of what is actually emerging; the constantly shifting power relationships amongst those involved that are enabling and constraining their actions; and the political dynamics that are continuously in play, as they and others seek to deal with the different interests, intentions, interpretations, ideologies, identities, and so on.’
What Chris says is very similar to what Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick University, says in a (free) Futurelearn course I am doing called ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick has a book with the same title. A reviewer says about it, ‘You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths.’
It’s a view shared by Chris Rodgers who says, ‘I do agree with his [Chater’s] basic premise that the mind is ‘flat’, in the sense that there is no processing going on in our unconscious as a precursor to our conscious thinking and acting. Nor do we have a store of memories, in the sense that this notion is ordinarily understood. Instead, our memories, thoughts and actions are constructed (and/or reconstructed) in the moment. Crucially, though, these tend to follow the patterns of our past sensemaking. That is, these are based on precedent rather than principle, as Chater also points out. As regards our memories, I talk about our re-membering of the past (i.e. putting it together afresh each time from our current vantage point). This draws on the Stacey/Griffin/Shaw notion of the “living present”.
Similarly, Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book ‘Wherever you go there you are’, says, ‘you carry your head and your heart, and what some would call your karma, around with you. You cannot escape yourself, try as you might’.
Agreeing with the notion that you can’t not bring your whole self to work, I’d like to see the phrase dropped from organisational vocabulary. (Understanding that you can, however, sensibly choose what to keep private about yourself).
Instead of meaningless phrases, let’s focus on the goal to be organisations ‘that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’ And in Chris Rodger’s words address the real challenge, ‘managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full.’ (See also this London Business School blog on the topic).
Do you think the phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ should be dropped? Let me know.
Image: Extract from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51