In open and inclusive cultures, where team members express their true selves, we see stronger work relationships and higher performance.
I vividly remember the last evening of high school. We knew we may never see each other again. The risk of saying something controversial and then living with the consequences was gone. So under the summer sky, my mates and I finally asked each other some difficult questions and expressed truths that had been suppressed for years. … ‘Why have you been avoiding me?’ The answer which came surprisingly quickly is burnt into my memory.
Many of us shared secrets and deep feelings, and confessed loving or painful thoughts for the first time. Words were flowing effortlessly. We felt more connected than ever.
I also felt a tinge of regret, after realising that we would have spent a very different four years together, had we reached this level of honesty and openness while we were still school mates. We could have repaired broken friendships.
As teenagers, we were certainly making life quite complicated for ourselves in order to feel safe and accepted. So what’s changed since we became older and wiser? The way I see it, not a lot. Many of us have carried our insecurities into our working lives.
Thus history repeats. On several occasions, I had fascinating discussions with colleagues about delicate topics we both felt very passionate about, just days before a final goodbye. We talked about spiritual beliefs and personal interests which we had thought would be laughed at or brutally judged in a corporate environment. But as things turned out, we were on the same wavelength. The connection between us grew stronger, as our working relationship was about to end. Yet again, I wished I could have turned back time.
A couple of nagging questions
‘How much personality should I bring to my professional life? And what problems and passions should I leave at home?’
These kinds of questions have followed me throughout my career. They sound rather trivial, but here is my conundrum. I don’t feel comfortable raising such issues with managers and colleagues unless I already have their permission to get personal. I’d love them to invite me to open up, rather than me having to ask if it’s okay.
As I recall, almost every single business leader I’ve ever talked to about this subject wants to create – or maintain – a workplace culture of transparency and authenticity. They want people to work with enthusiasm, and to have a strong sense of connection with their peers and the business. However, in my experience, many leaders who are trying to encourage their people to show their true selves actually fail to give them sufficient attention, support, and a safe space.
For example, I have a natural tendency to blur the boundaries between my professional and private personas. I also enjoy drawing solutions to work-related problems from my personal interests and side projects – in other words, to innovate without boundaries. Unfortunately, in some of the places I worked, this approach raised eyebrows and my ideas were seen as too ‘far out’. On one hand, I was invited to express more of my personality, and on the other, I was expected to fit their mould. If you’d ever like to alienate a team member, this is how you do it.
A smarter, more enjoyable way to work
These days I’m more careful with my choices about who I team up with. I’m consciously looking for partners, colleagues and clients who are genuinely curious about the people they collaborate with, and want to develop friendly, informal professional relationships. They want to have relaxed, engaging and insightful conversations, knowing that it’s not just a nicer way to work but also good for the whole team as well as the business.
In open and inclusive cultures, where team members express themselves freely and honestly, we see stronger social connections and higher performance. We see greater trust, commitment and cohesion, as well as more flowing communication and collaboration. Members work more productively, and innovate and solve problems better. And by the way, they also love their work more.
However, not everyone can drop their guard and open up just because they are invited to do so. We all have a colourful personal history perhaps including some embarrassing or regrettable experiences as well as a fair amount of societal conditioning to overcome.
I certainly find it challenging to show more of my personality on cue. I have a humorous, cheeky side which my close friends and family frequently see. However, expressing my playful nature in professional settings doesn’t always come natural to me. This is a pity, because I know it would improve my communication and relationships with my teams, clients and audience. (In fact, I started to write this article with the intention of making it a playful and fun read, and I feel I’ve failed spectacularly. I’m writing at home, alone – I might add – with no-one around to bounce off.)
Tips from my experience and research
Instead of some witty jokes, I’d like to share a few ideas about how you can make it easier for yourself and others to simply get real.
- Let’s start with the obvious. Spend time with your team getting to know each other. Strong, trusting personal relationships are the foundation of an open workplace culture.
- Find opportunities to play as a team. You could integrate play into your work, or play just for the fun of it. Either way, you and your team mates will likely get to know a different side of each other compared to what you see during disciplined work. Playing expands your thinking and entices you to push boundaries. A good game turns your attention from what could go wrong to what could go right.
- Few things break the ice faster than humour and laughter. I’m sure you agree, personalities tend to shine while you’re bouncing jokes off each other and discussing issues with a lighthearted spirit. In a culture where humour is appreciated, you find it easier to express yourself openly and authentically. You can certainly enjoy humour and still take your job seriously and work productively. So don’t hold back.
- While it’s certainly nice to work in a positive environment, please don’t expect each other to always put on a happy face. Creating a safe space for each other to be vulnerable is essential. In some workplaces I know of, members frequently get together after work, in small groups, to discuss personal and professional challenges. During these sessions, people are able to have real, down-to-earth conversations about issues that are meaningful to them but they don’t normally talk about.
- Use interesting, fun collaboration tools. You may find it easier to scribble bold, provocative ideas on a giant, lime-green sticky note, for example, compared to a plain whiteboard. Some creative consultants hand colourful crayons and sharpies to their corporate clients during collaboration sessions, which gives them permission to unleash their inner child and express themselves without filters.
- When you connect with your team remotely, keep in mind that certain online tools and platforms are more conducive to authentic self-expression than others. Check in with your team how they feel about different applications. For example, I tend to feel rather cautious and guarded when chatting with people on LinkedIn, and more relaxed when sharing ideas on Slack – even when it’s the same person at the other end.
- You probably spend most of your hard-working hours sitting on an office chair. You sit on that chair when you evaluate pros and cons, follow protocols and work towards deadlines. To snap yourself out of this analytical state, try shifting your body posture. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you chat more casually with your team mates when sitting on a sofa, bar stool or a floor cushion, compared to an office chair. You could also have a standing meeting or go for a walk, and you’ll likely notice that the conversation flows naturally.
- The space you meet in can set the tone of your conversations. A comfortable and cosy place helps you relax. A casual and friendly ambience invites you to act more naturally. And a playful environment may put you in the mood to play. Innovative teams often decorate their workspaces with offbeat artwork and quirky objects. Why not? Such spaces send the message that it’s okay to be different – you don’t need to try to fit in.
- You can of course also hold certain types of meetings outside the office. You might enjoy catching up with your team say in a hip cafe or restaurant, or in a lush garden. And what about getting together and exploring ideas somewhere unusual, say at an art gallery, zoo or aquarium?
Are you concerned that your team might take work less seriously, as a result? Or that they will be distracted from the work they need to do? You’re more likely to find that they achieve more and contribute to the team with a heightened work ethic.
And when the sad day comes for one of your team members to move on, you won’t be saying goodbye with a sense of regret. Because you won’t be wondering how things could have been different if you’d each allowed the other to see your true selves.