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Is Authenticity in the Workplace Realistic?

Listen to the full episode of Untapped with Anna Oakes

Professionals in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space envision a future where not only will talent from underrepresented backgrounds have access to great opportunities, but they will also feel comfortable and accepted enough to bring their whole, authentic selves with them to work. But is this really a realistic goal? And will bringing your whole self to the job make workplaces better?

Not necessarily, says Anna Oakes, Founder, and CEO of executive and team coaching firm Oakes Co. 

“Let’s be realistic about what authentic means,” Anna told our Chief People Officer, Tariq Meyers, in this week’s episode of the “Untapped” podcast— where D&I leaders share untapped practices for making the workplace more diverse and open to untapped talent.  

Anna explains that although it’s important for workplaces to create an inclusive space where employees feel comfortable, it’s not always realistic—or even productive—to bring your whole self to work. She explains what she means by that this way:

“I love a debate. I will throw down on anything; I'll even argue on the other side because it’s so fun to me. But I married an introvert who does not enjoy that process. So I can’t do that at home. Same thing at work—I might work in an environment where that might be how I work best. I might, for example, talk to think, but I have a roomful of people who think to talk. So bringing my most authentic self, I think actually damages our belonging. I can’t bring all these aspects of Anna to the workplace because they’re not productive. They don’t help the ‘we’ even though they might help the ‘me’ in some respects.”

Mental Health as Inclusion

One of the specific ways that people are bringing more of themselves to work is by discussing their mental health challenges—and in the wake of the pandemic, expressing feelings of stress, burnout, and depression are becoming increasingly common.

“Now people are starting to cry on Zoom calls. People are starting to say, ‘I’m going to take a mental health day.’ People are starting to say, ‘I can’t attend that meeting because my performance is not in the right spot. I’m not going to make a positive impact as I want to, so I’m going to miss the meeting. Please let me know how I can make an impact later,’” Anna said. “We’re starting to see those things. And I believe that from a systems’ perspective, it’s great because now we have energy.”

Although Anna is happy to see people being more honest about these feelings in the workplace and being mindful enough to say they need time to take care of their mental health, she recognizes that bringing this part of yourself to work also creates new challenges for organizations—challenges that lead to tough questions that need to be addressed to ensure all workers are being taken care of. 

“I will say from a business perspective, it's very challenging,” Anna said. “Where I get a little stuck, in all honesty, is how do we talk about this and try to create a system where individuals are more apt to care for their own individual mental health? That's my first step if we can at least get there. I would love in an ideal world for a therapist to be brought in and really, really invest in your people. That's like ivory tower, so I have to back that up. That's Tesla, let me go get a Ford and make a drivable version of that, which says at the very least we need to be making it easier for people to take care of themselves. We didn't do that before.”

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The 120% Myth

When many employees talk about bringing their whole selves to work, they may make comments about what percentage of themselves they are bringing to the table. But Anna believes this is another area where people need to be realistic because although talking about bringing 120% to their jobs sounds good, it’s simply impractical.

“When people say, ‘I'm going to bring 120% to work.’ I'm like, ‘You will not. You only have a hundred percent to give today. How much of that are you going to give to me, your employer? A hundred? You're not going to save any of that for you, or your kids, or your family, your loved ones, your friends, your dogs, whatever? No, you're not going to give it to me. I'm lucky if I'm going to get 60% of your energy for however long you're going to work for me during the day,’” Anna said. “Let's be realistic about this 120%, even 100% that we bring to the work.”  

To find out more of Anna’s opinions about how companies can realistically tackle the issues that arise when trying to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can be themselves, listen to this week’s “Untapped” podcast.

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