A major goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is for employees to being their most authentic self to work. Other words commonly used in the DEI space instead of “authentic” are “best” or “whole.”
Your authentic self is what comes naturally to you, being the self that takes no extra effort. This has been conceptualized as feeling connected to the “real you” or consistency between your behaviors at work and your personal values and beliefs (Song et al., 2020).
Your best self is the version of you that shows up confident and self-assured by leading with your strengths and setting yourself up for success as the best professional you can be.
Your whole self involves fully showing up as you are in your most vulnerable and true state, allowing yourself to be fully seen as you are in the workplace.
I personally steer clients away from using the word "whole” within their DEI statements and overall DEI vision. In my humble opinion, bringing one’s “whole self” to work is bunk. We simply should not bring every single, unedited, unfiltered part of ourselves to work. What if your whole, “fun loving” self would crack a beer on a morning conference call? Or wear pajamas to a meeting with clients? Or break into song in the middle of the workspace while others are quietly working?
Clearly, any of the above examples are not things one should be bringing to work.
So that leads us to untangling the difference between one’s “authentic” and “best self.”
Seth Godin, a marketing expert and author, defines authenticity as “consistent emotional labor.” In other words, “someone is authentic when their actions are in alignment with what they promise.”
Businesses such as Microsoft have worked with consultants to leverage authenticity in the workplace. However, there is still a lot to learn about whether authenticity brings the same benefits as feeling like one’s best self instead, and whether those benefits apply to everyone in the workplace.
Being authentic requires psychological safety, or the ability to speak honestly or make mistakes without fear of negative consequences or repercussions. In other words, the benefits of employees bringing their authentic self to work will not come to fruition without psychological safety (Gardner et al., 2022).
In some cases, being too authentic could hurt members of marginalized and underrepresented groups. As writer Jodi-Ann Burey states in her Ted Talk, “being authentic privileges those already part of the dominant culture. It is much easier to be who you are when who you are is all around you... Coming just as we are when we're the first, the only, the different or one of the few can prove too risky. So we wear the costume. We keep the truer parts of ourselves hidden.”
How to encourage employees to bring their best selves to work:
Given that there are conflicting ideas about who benefits from promoting authenticity at work, I personally recommend the phrase “bringing your best self to work.” Below are three ways you can encourage employees to bring their best selves to work, especially those from under-represented groups.
Ask & listen: Don’t assume you know what it means for someone to bring their best selves to work. Take time to learn about what people want to be known and valued for. And remember: it’s your turn to really listen before providing any advice/feedback.
Be YOUR best self at work. People learn best through watching and replicating the behaviors of others.
Establish an organization-wide definition of how people are expected to show up in the workplace, emphasizing the importance of one’s individual contributions and preferences rather than leading with one’s identity alone. This approach will keep you from getting into stereotyping and tokenizing those from underrepresented groups, while still valuing the unique perspective diversity brings to teams and organizations.
Contact Mattingly to schedule a consultation about our DEIx™ Strategy Session and learn more about how you can create a DEI vision and data-driven strategy that enables your employees to bring their best self to work every day!