But what about the foundational skill of being a human being?
I know a man who directs, produces, and conducts amazing musical theatre. Except, he doesn’t typically disclose this at work. If a colleague asks about some performance-related photos they’ve seen pop up on Facebook, he replies: “I’m doing a play.”
“I can’t even really bring myself to say it’s a musical,” he explains to me. “Musicals sound frivolous. A play is serious.”
But it’s not a play, and it’s not frivolous. It’s a whole side of his life he feels nervous about sharing with the office. And he's not alone. Many of us fear being human at work.
From Bird Woman to the Monday Blues
After a successful run singing “Bird Woman” in Mary Poppins, Sarah crawls back to work as Patrons Executive on the philanthropy team for a premiere arts company in Sydney. There’s a phenomenon in theatre known as “the post-show blues”—the Monday-like depression that sets in after a performance run has come to a close. This is true for all actors, but particularly for community theatre productions, where vastly talented people pack in a full season of rehearsals and shows on top of the demands of their day jobs.
The first Monday back at work is a day of physical and mental exhaustion, after committing so much free time and energy to a single extracurricular venture. What’s almost worse is the context shift: moving from peak performance with a well-oiled team doing something for the love of it—to the workplace that may have substantially less employee engagement, purpose, and camaraderie. (The difference between our passions and our workplaces is often the question: would we all show up here if none of us got paid?)
What’s almost worse is the context shift: moving from peak performance with a well-oiled team doing something for the love of it—to the workplace that may have substantially less employee engagement, purpose, and camaraderie.
Sarah’s fortunate, as her colleagues understand this mental shift; they anticipate her potential emotional fragility. In response, they pull out all the stops, decorating her workspace with things they know will make her smile—Christmas (no matter what the season), and signs with her unusual nickname. Her colleagues know exactly which specific details elicit much-needed joy.
Why is this example unusual? Because we’re so used to walking the tightrope of work-life balance that we end up segmenting our lives into boxes. We exercise before heading into the office. We read on our lunch breaks. We pack in all of our passions and interests somewhere before bed and on the weekends. Time gets divided into “work” time and “life” time.
We exercise before heading into the office. We read on our lunch breaks. We pack in all of our passions and interests somewhere before bed and on the weekends.
The whole self, and nothing but the whole self
There are noticeable symptoms of not bringing your whole self to work. We feel disconnected. We don’t share our interests with others around us, even the colleagues who know us better than anyone else in the office. Which means we go through the day and don’t ever feel fully known. We become disengaged and unmotivated because our actions are not linked to the activities we would do purely for the love of doing them.
All of this adds up to losing a sense of direction and purpose.
We may be walking in the office door, but we’re not showing up.
Compare this to the benefits of meeting work with your whole self. I’ve been involved with music and performance for over 12 years. How does this impact my corporate job? I can watch a presentation with one eye for content, and one eye for delivery. I can give anyone specific feedback for improvement, and I can explain—with over a decade’s worth of experience— exactly why those tweaks will work.
Consider this: asking for public speaking advice from the coworker who performs in “plays” is only one example. How many other discrete coaching moments are you missing by not knowing your colleagues’ unique (and maybe seemingly unrelated) talents?
There are immense benefits of showing up to work as our whole selves—passions, disparate interests, and all:
We have a wide arsenal of unconventional skills. If we fail to share them, we have no idea what change they could affect.
We feel understood and known by our colleagues.
We experience a greater connection at work.
We help create a symbiotic cycle, based on interest and investment. Better team members create better leaders. Better leaders encourage better collaboration in teams.
We no longer have to segment our lives, where leaving a piece of us at home feels like a partial amputation.
But where is my invitation?
This is about more than just employee engagement, and more than strategic initiatives to develop corporate culture. This is the practice of returning to ourselves at our most humanness: which is the desire to connect, to be appreciated, and to feel useful in all of our facets.
This is the practice of returning to ourselves at our most humanness: which is the desire to connect, to be appreciated, and to feel useful in all of our facets.
Some workplaces function this way already, in which case I say: bravo. But more often than not, we don’t show up this way because we haven’t been invited. We don’t realise it’s possible to integrate our wide range of hobbies and interests into something applicable to our 9-5 jobs. Offices are filled with people waiting for the invitation into this kind of relationship.
As a leader, your responsibility is to lead by example, to open the dialogue, and invite your workplace into new ways of relating. Especially if this relationship can solve negative symptoms of disengagement, and produce emotional benefits.
Where can you start?
Understand that your colleagues are more than their jobs. Get to know their contexts. What fills their free time? Is your anaesthesiologist a highly-proficient musician, writing songs on a guitar late into the evening?
Get curious. Find out what skills your colleagues have that might be helpful in contributing to the business at large. Think outside the box—the connections aren’t always linear. Does your Senior Engineer participate in triathlons? Imagine what he could teach you about discipline, resilience, and setting goals.
Share their highs and lows. At work, we’re in it together: shared obstacles (the printer jammed again), and shared triumphs (“Deborah brought in cake!!”). But outside of the office, ask how things are affecting them. How is a difficult project impacting their downtime? What curveballs have arisen in their extracurricular pursuits? Shared problems often lead to creative solutions. Shared successes create even more space for proactive support.
Flex and develop your empathy muscles. Get invested in your colleagues and employees as human beings. We’re all taught to focus on customer needs, asking questions to better understand their perspectives, and providing empathetic responses to give them a better experience.
Why do any less for your team?
Emma Sedlak is a Scottish-American poet, writer, editor, and singer: qualities that make her well-suited for a career as a medieval minstrel. She works in corporate strategy and as a freelance writer, invested in helping people create deep, intuitive content, and narratives. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her partner. In her downtime, she spouts poetry on Twitter and snaps cat-pics on Instagram.