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Take Your True Self to Work Day

Compartmentalizing your life can be more than unproductive — it can be unhealthy. Consider bringing your whole self to your work and move beyond work-life balance.

“When I go to work, it’s as if I leave my true self locked in the car. I go up in the elevator and emerge as Work Self. If I leave in time, I can get back to the car and reclaim my true self. But if I’m too late, by the time I get there, my true self is just out cold.” That’s how a salesman I hired described his life in corporate America. He had to be two different people. Work didn’t want his true self, but he fought hard to keep it alive. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he didn’t.

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Sound familiar? Of all the issues I’ve discussed with managers and employees around the world, the most painful and persistent is the acute conflict they sense between who they feel themselves to be on the inside and who they present on the outside. My salesman — let’s call him Steve — wouldn’t find life so painful if his two selves were closely related to each other. But they aren’t. They are dangerously very far apart. At work, he advocates independence, fast results, toughness, and flexibility. At home, he preaches the importance of loyalty, long-term commitment, selflessness, and steadfastness. No wonder he’s hurting.

Steve does what many people do: compartmentalizes his life. He has a work self and what he thinks of as his true self, carefully locked away from each other. This kind of compartmentalization is sometimes called splitting by psychologists, and it has a bad reputation. Once you split off a part of yourself, what’s left rules without checks or balances. It can come as no real surprise that when one investigates the lives of many criminals — white-collar criminals and war criminals alike — the integration of their work and home lives is strikingly absent. The problem with compartmentalization, it turns out, is that it offers its proponents the opportunity to lie. It helps good people to do bad things.

And yet compartmentalization is a characteristic, even a requirement, of so many corporate cultures. What else are corporate fetishes like 24-hour deal negotiations, all-night coding, and corporate retreats if not training for leaving your real self at home? Punishing schedules, endless travel, and repeated relocations are designed to teach you tolerance for leaving your private values in the car. In cultures like these, it can come as no surprise when executives lose their sense of right and wrong; they were trained to lock it away long ago.

But now, all over the world, I keep hearing from men and women who refuse to collude in this. Instead they wrestle insistently with the twin strands of their lives, determined to fuse them back together again. People like John, a Fast Company reader, who finally changed his job and moved. His relocation has been profound; it’s not just a professional and geographical shift but a psychic one — from the old world of command and control to a collaborative environment that values at work the talents and values he uses in parenting his children at home. He’s gone from serving two separate cultures to embodying one, from leading two conflicting lives to relishing a single, whole life.

“The impact on my home life has been immeasurable. My wife and I are much more comfortable making tough choices in our day to day life — in regard to the friends we keep, the things we buy (or choose not to buy), and the activities we participate in,” John wrote me. “We tend not to pursue relationships with old friends who have bought into the traditional work culture — we find ourselves out of sync with them, and have been opened to a new group of friends who share our values. We focus on inexpensive activities all can enjoy together, rather than toys or events that keeps us apart.”

There are many stories like John’s, and they are not about work-life balance because their quest doesn’t end with flex time, child care, or time off. What John and those like him are trying to do is harmonize the values that run across the totality of their lives. They are not dropping out but seeking something far harder: to heal the division between our work cultures and our home cultures so that we don’t have to lie to anyone anywhere any more.

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John’s new life isn’t just better for him; I think that it is better for business as a whole. Putting values at the center of our work and our home lives makes for better decisions and better companies. More radical than SEC regulations, integrating our values across work and home cultures is the only way to change fundamentally the rotten cultures that bedevil the business world today.

If we take our whole selves to work, we can transform the culture and sustain ourselves. Think about this the next time you go to the work. When you leave your home or lock and park your car, what are you leaving behind? Take your whole self to work tomorrow and watch what happens.

Margaret Heffernan is former CEO of ZineZone Corp. and iCAST Corp. Additional information about Heffernan — as well as additional Culture Club columns — are available in Online Insights.

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