Bring Your Whole Self to Work: Cliche or Call to Action?

‘Bring your whole self to work’ is an invitation that many companies in corporate America extend to their employees. Every company is traveling a unique D&I journey, but common among all experiences is the belief that embracing this cultural ideal is a competitive advantage to becoming (or remaining) a top employer and industry leader. Leaders are embracing the promise that a sincere commitment to D&I can bring to creating a workplace where you are valued for who you are and the talent you bring to our business.

Why is this important?

The foundation of inclusion is authenticity. Research shows that employees invest extra energy covering aspects of themselves and their lives out of fear: fear of being judged, fear of being excluded, fear of not being heard, fear of not being valued, and even in some cases, fear of losing their jobs. Since Americans spend more time working than any other activity, it’s important that the energy we invest into our work is positive, edifying, and sets you and your teammates up for success. One thing I know for sure – fear has never produced positive results for me or my team.

The traditional workplace culture sends subtle messages about what’s accepted, respected, and valued. These messages come through loud and clear, especially to those who fall outside of the normative standard. Unfortunately, these cultural micro-messages usually reflect personal preference, not requirements outlined by company policy, the Code of Ethics, and company Values.

When we cover based on the preferences of others (usually communicated by people of influence and in power), we generally guard themselves against authentic human relationships that form at work, thereby keeping us at arm’s length from integrating our work lives in a way that’s meaningful, fun, and fulfilling.

People cover (or underemphasize) their family arrangements, veteran status, disabilities, pregnancy status, socioeconomic backgrounds, faith, relationships, ages, and political affiliations. They augment their hair, religious dress, accents, mannerisms, and many more aspects that make us who we are. And when we diminish these parts of ourselves, we diminish our whole selves.

‘Bring your whole self to work’ is not a license to overshare and disclose intimate details of our lives around every watercooler in the office. It’s also not an invitation to wear your tie-die shirt while meeting our customers, crochet during a meeting, or otherwise let your freak flag fly. Within our workplace, we have freedom within a framework, and that framework is important. It outlines the expectations and norms we will maintain in order to properly function as a business. It is shaped by company policy, the Code of Ethics, and company Values – the requirements of being part of any great team.

It’s the freedom within the framework where the invitation to be our whole selves is extended. We are made up of a multi-dimensional mix of passions, purposes, and pursuits. When we check these aspects of ourselves at the door, there can be real costs:*

  • Cost of Energy
    • The energy we spend trying to cover up our uniqueness is energy that we no longer have for our work, our family, our friends, or our communities. We have less to contribute.
  • Cost of Ability
    • The very aspect of your identity that you’re covering just might be your secret weapon for success and greater contribution, or it might be the key that unlocks potential in a coworker.
  • Cost of Burnout
    • Lying by omission about who you are can contribute to anxiety and a sense that your life is dis-integrated, that work is something separate from your “real” life.

The result of ‘Bring your whole self to work’ ultimately will vary from person to person based on a variety of factors: trust; relationship with leaders and coworkers; tenure with the company; age; and ultimately, the desire to accept the invitation. However, if you’re open to accepting this invitation, here are some ways in which you can bring your whole, best self to work and create an environment where others can do the same:

  • Take time to self-reflect and consider what aspects of your life and your self are fundamental to who you are. If these elements of your personality, life, or character are intentionally hidden at work, consider probing more as to why.
  • Build trust with your team by consistently responding to challenges and conflict with courage and transparency. Trust is built through positive interactions over time.
  • Practice constructive curiosity with others. Setting an example of your openness to others’ areas of difference signals to others that it’s safe for them to be authentic in relating with you, within the respectful and appropriate boundaries of a working relationship.
  • Understand the difference between support and agreement. We do not have to agree with one another 100% of the time in order to fully support one another. We tend to like and affirm people with whom we agree, and conversely, distance ourselves from people with whom we disagree.

As you contemplate the invitation to ‘Bring your whole self to work’, I will leave you with powerful insight from the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux:

“We are all of fundamental equal worth. At the same time, our community will be richest if we let all members contribute in their distinctive way, appreciating the differences in roles, education, backgrounds, interests, skills, characters, points of view, and so on.”

*Credit: with list of costs associated with covering.

Tolerance? No Thank You!

Tolerance has become a word associated with acceptance, and even inclusiveness.

However, to tolerate someone isn’t necessarily kind, considerate or inclusive. Tolerance does not create a high performance organization, either. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as an educator in corporate America.

Case in point: I tolerate my friend’s occasional cigarette smoking habit. I don’t like it and I wish he would stop. I like him, he’s funny, and I can put up with his smoking. To Tolerate = To Put Up With.

Hearing it, as an out gay man, “tolerance” smacks of the old saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Tolerater” in that scenario has always sounded to me like “Hater.”

What Does Tolerance Mean at Work?

I see this bumper sticker, or other versions of it, all over my city of Atlanta:

I guess that the driver of the car bearing the sticker is trying to convey a desire to coexist peacefully in this wonderful world filled with people of varied cultures, religions, diets, politics, sexual orientations and life choices.

However, in the workplace, the world where I spend most of my time (and where you might, as well), the mental attitude of “tolerance” might have a surprising and negative impact on others, where differences between people are concerned.

The Tolerance Scale

To put the word and mental attitude into perspective, consider the “Tolerance Scale,” created by ProGroup in the mid 1990s. (I served as a consultant to ProGroup early on in my career.) The firm used a rather arbitrary numbering system from most inclusive to least:

5  Appreciation: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I appreciate

4  Acceptance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I accept

3  Tolerance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I tolerate

2  Avoidance: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I avoid

1  Repulsion: You are different from and similar to me in ways that I deem repulsive

What does this mean to you? Like many mental constructs, creating a thought exercise that directly impacts YOU, is often the best way to get our head around an idea.


*How has it made you feel during your life, especially at work, when your leader and/or colleagues APPRECIATED or ACCEPTED you as a part of the team? Frequent answers in our workshops include: fully engaged, a sense of belongingness, honored, validated and full of energy.

* How does it feel, especially at work, when your leader and/or colleagues AVOID or are REPULSED by you because of their beliefs about your values, religion, who you love, how you live or your cultural practices? I hope this is a thought exercise and not a real life memory, but common responses would be: excluded, marginalized, disengaged, lonely, judged, like an outsider — and, I hear often — looking for an “exit strategy.” Avoidance and Repulsion naturally create feelings of “why bother” and employee disengagement.

*Finally, how has it felt in your career when others, especially your leader/manager, are unable or unwilling to accept you for who you are and merely TOLERATE who you are as a person?I’m reminded of the character from the musical, Chicago, who sang, “I’m Mr. Cellophane.” “’Cause you can look right through me / Walk right by me and never know I’m there.” In fact, maybe worse than invisible, more like “why am I here?”

Moving Beyond Tolerance at Work

Tolerance is not enough to create the “ROI” of full employee engagement. If you are truly committed to creating the best team, with the highest levels of engagement, you might have some work to do in the “inclusion gym.”

  • Make a list of your direct reports and assign a number to them (1-5) using the Tolerance Scale above.
  • Be honestly scrupulous in your assessment of your attitude toward their differences: their communication style, non-verbal style, voice, story-telling approach, lifestyle that you know about outside of work, attire. . . . you get my drift. You’re not assessing their performance, just your attitude about them as a human being.
  • Focus on any person to whom you’ve assigned Tolerance, Avoidance or Repulsion. (Repulsion is rather rare at work, but these relationships do exist for many leaders.) Create a personalized plan for how you are going to improve the relationship with these teammates, over time, with the professional goal of moving them to at least Acceptance.
  • Consider that ACCEPTANCE does not necessarily mean approval. It means they are different. They are not the same. And that’s OK. You can accept something without judging it as “needing to be different.”

This is the HARD work of managing bias, conscious and unconscious at work.

Here’s to your journey of intentionally inclusive behaviors toward your teammates. The effort will be worth it through the dynamics of increased belongingness that ensues on your team.

Unconsciously Biased Listening

I’ll never forget the weekend I spent in Salt Lake City about 15 years ago. I was learning and practicing a new training class from an innovative consulting firm with whom I partnered. During this “train the trainer”, friends and colleagues who do what I do (facilitate diversity and inclusion educational workshops) were sharing a lot of best-practice ideas.

These were peers who had all been “out there in the trenches” (like me) delivering similar, potentially transformative workshops. We shared our successes and learned from each other.

On the plane flight back east, I sat with my friend and colleague, Mercedes, an Afro Cuban woman. At the time, she was already an accomplished consultant. Mercedes knows her stuff and has the clients to prove it!

During our airplane chatter, Mercedes took a deep breath and let me know she needed to share something with me. She described one of the “best practice” stories I had shared in Salt Lake City, reminded me of the praise I received from peers and leaders in the group.

She asked, “Do you remember where that idea came from?”

I explained that I had developed it from a series of “trial and errors” while facilitating the many workshops I had done in the past year.

Mercedes smiled, nodded her head and said, “I shared that idea with you when we were together several months ago. Do you remember that conversation?”

Whoa. What?

Me, an Idea Thief?

In my mind, I had come up with that idea. I told Mercedes, “You must have your wires crossed; I don’t make a habit of stealing ideas and taking credit for them! I’m kind of insulted that you would accuse me of that.”

I remember a quiet plane ride from that point forward. My mind kept replaying her “accusation,” and even began to form judgments about HER that I had never thought before. We landed at our destination and said goodbye.

About a week after this conversation, I had one of those moments that illustrates the expression, “It dawned on me.” Like the light of dawn, I remembered. Mercedes had shared this idea with me, at a moment when I had been frustrated and multi-tasking. I had simply forgotten where it came from. After I tested it repeatedly, I adopted the “credit” for figuring something out that was successful. None of this was intentional – but it did happen.

I was an idea thief. How could this be?

Meeting our Filters with Understanding

When I called Mercedes to acknowledge what I did and apologize for my actions, she said, “Thanks for the apology. I accept it. I want to you to know that this is a common occurrence for women of color like me. White women and men frequently co-opt our ideas. They don’t listen. It’s like ‘death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you’re like me, you don’t listen to people the same way all of the time. We listen through filters of gender, age, ethnicity, accent and physical size. Our learned biases form an invisible network of filters that influences our listening to others.

Most of us don’t have the same “listening” for our older white bosses, for example, as we do for a younger woman of color who is new to the team. Consider if this is true for you.

Intent ≠Impact

I’m not talking about explicit discrimination here. I’m talking about subtlety that is invisible to the “perpetrator.” It’s hardly ever invisible to the recipient, in this case, Mercedes. She saw my lack of awareness and inclusion, and it was palpable, familiar and painful.

The intent and the impact of our actions frequently don’t equate, especially when gender and culture among the players is different.

But there are behaviors and actions we can practice in our “inclusion gym” to prevent an inequity or unintentional slight to our colleagues, like what happened between Mercedes and me.

How to Recognize and Mitigate Biased Filtering

  • Be a focused listener.Practice mindfulness when you interact with others. Here are a few tips.
  • Assume positive intent.When giving or receiving feedback about your behavior, or the behavior of another person, try to presuppose that the other person means well. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Give credit where credit is due.Affirm your colleagues when they share an idea. If someone co-opts that idea in a meeting, circle back and remind the team where the original idea came from.
  • Be willing to explore and acknowledgeOur invisible biases around race and gender and other diversity dimensions influence how we listen to each other. When partnering with someone who is different from you on one or more dimension, double up on active listening and pay more attention to their contributions and ideas.
  • Acknowledge when you are wrong.As soon as you realize you have inadvertently let filters blind your actions, accept responsibility and communicate this to the person who may have been hurt. Now is the time to look inward and see what caused “filter blindness.” Were you paying attention to what they said? Did you dismiss their ideas because of implicit bias?

These practices work. I know, because I’ve been exercising them since my “Mercedes accident,” and I’ve gotten feedback on my intent listening from many women of color since then.

You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I’m proof.

Check out another great article on this topic from Fast Company:

COMING OUT – From the Outfield: Baseball, Broadway and Belongingness

Something you will never see on your local or network TV broadcast: Sports Time with SCOTT! My friends and colleagues know I’m not exactly a sportsperson. However, as with most topics, it’s a little more complicated than that. And by the end of this blog, I promise I’ll make the connection between sports and inclusion in the workplace.


Let me clarify the sports thing: It’s not as if I’m anti-sport. As a student, I attended every football at three different schools (Cedar Cliff High School in Pennsylvania, James Madison University, and Ohio State). That’s nine seasons! As a child, I also played little league baseball, albeit relegated to the outfield where I could do the least damage.

It’s not as if I didn’t scream like a super-fan when JMU’s basketball team rose to NCAA tournament prominence in the early ’80s; I loved the game, the action, and the community it brought to our otherwise sleepy Shenandoah Valley, Virginia former teachers’ college. It was exhilarating. Go Duke Dogs!

Finally, I appreciate when colleagues or friends use sports from the previous weekend as the icebreaker in meetings or calls, even though we know that not everyone follows or cares about sports. I don’t see it as inherently exclusionary if nearly everyone is involved in the chat or teammates are conscious enough to engage with the other (non-fan) people present.

But like any discussion, we need to be aware of drawing people into conversations that are intended to connect us.


I’ll admit I was a phony-fake sports fan for a LONG time. For years I decided to “go along to get along” to be able to talk sports at Monday morning meetings. I scanned the sports pages or caught the Sunday night local news sportscast so I had the bare minimum to participate in the inevitable sports chat.

It wasn’t very authentic. It was a cover.

I’m sure it has to do with my long and not-that-unusual journey of struggling to navigate male connection in a world where the masculine and the accompanying assumed restrictions on what’s normal to discuss in the US has largely been set by cisgender, straight, white males.

It was NOT exhausting to “cover” like this. It was really nothing, in hindsight. And, it wasn’t authentic. That’s all it was. I’m not overblowing this as non-inclusive culture, non-inclusive behavior, etc. It was and is the norm in many organizations I’ve worked in and supported. It was and is the norm, at least that’s what I still see as a consultant working with clients.

Here’s the point. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I kept on playing the game of what I thought was expected of me. Now I know better, and now I’m happier.


One of my clients, a USA transportation and distribution company, asked to partner with me to implement an inclusion strategy with three men who happened to be sports fans. We often began our weekly progress meetings with a perfunctory sports chat. On one of these meetings where I hadn’t done my Sunday night “homework,” one of the guys asked, “Scott, what did you think about the end of the Atlanta Braves game!!??”

(Crickets as my wheels turned: What to say?)

In hindsight, it must have been divine providence that caused me to inhale and announce, authentically for the first time, that I don’t follow sports . . . at all.

(Crickets as their wheels must have been turning. What the heck?)

After (probably) two seconds that felt like two minutes, the leader of the project said: “That’s cool, Scott. What are you into? We could talk about that instead of the sports stuff.”

After some thought and a deep inhalation, I said, “One of my passions, ever since I was in high school, has been musical theater, especially in New York, on and off-Broadway.”

I waited.

My client replied, “I LOVE Broadway! My wife and I went to New York a while back and we still talk about how great the actor Patina Miller was in Sister Act. We’re getting ready to book another trip.”

His colleagues then named their favorite shows and then asked me to name my top three favorite shows of all time. (If you care: Hamilton, Rent, and Godspell.)

The Broadway baby part of me was suddenly beaming. And here’s the thing: I now know, truly know, that it doesn’t matter if they like what I like. Me being authentic and having others acknowledge my passion or interest is enough. Even if they don’t do that, I have decided, I gotta be me. Maybe it’s maturity (probably). Maybe it’s working in DEI for 30 years (definitely doesn’t hurt). Or, maybe we’re evolving as we do the work of helping organizations and managers and teammates to acknowledge that diversity isn’t an ideal; it’s the reality of people showing up to be with each other in work or play.

And so that’s the personal learning I bring to workshops lately. It’s not enough to ask your teammates who they are, what they value, or what matters to them. If leaders aren’t able and willing, and even excited, to “go below the waterline” to be a little more vulnerable, we can’t expect those we lead to feel that it’s safe to share their love of Broadway, their passion for anime, their healthy addiction to a video game, or their volunteer work with animals. We are whole and complex people seeking a sense of belongingness for our whole being, not just our skills and talents.


*Remember the power of open-ended questions in one-on-ones or staff gatherings.

  • What’s something you do in your free time that brings you joy?
  • If money was no object, what would do with your time to contribute to the world?
  • What should I know about you so that I can be a better manager or mentor to you?

*Remember that leaders usually set the stage for what’s safe, what’s acceptable, what’s allowable, and what is normal in the workplace culture. Be willing to answer the above questions yourself first, even before you ask others to share. You are the model, the pacesetter.

*Check out this book I like: Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work by Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman, and Mark Edwards, 2020.