Do You Really Want to Be Yourself at Work?

Harvard Business Review

Would you love to work in a place where you could truly be yourself?  Where you didn’t have to spend a single moment of your time and energy making sure you put only your best self forward?

Most people would, according to research recently published by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in “Creating the Best Workplace on Earth.” For three years they went around the world, asking hundreds of executives to describe the attributes of their ideal workplace. Topping the list was an environment where people could be themselves and where the company invested in developing them (and everyone they worked with) to be the very best they could be.

Interestingly, during a comparable three-year period, Harvard education professor Robert Kegan was researching the other side of the equation, looking for companies that pursued competitive advantage by developing every person to his or her fullest potential. He and his colleagues Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, Matthew Miller, Claire Lee, and Inna Markus had put out the word among their extended networks in academia, consulting, HR, and corporate C-suites: Did anyone know of any organization, anywhere in the world, dedicated to developing every one of its people by weaving personal growth into day-to-day work?

The researchers found precious few companies that took that approach. In their initial pool of only 20 candidates, just two with 100 or more employees had been operating fully and successfully in that mode for at least five years. One was an East Coast investment firm called Bridgewater Associates, the other a West Coast real estate and movie theater management company called Decurion. The researchers spent hundreds of hours viewing the two firms’ practices and interviewing their people (and wrote about them in detail in “Making Business Personal”).

In these companies employees didn’t spend any time hiding their inadequacies or preserving their reputations. Rather, everyone — from the CEO on down — was expected to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In fact, both organizations had elaborate systems designed to promote individuals into roles a bit beyond their comfort zones to ensure that they would inevitably learn from failure. In this way people became masters not of any particular skill but of learning to adjust to new situations, which produced organizations that were remarkably resilient.

Does that sound appealing? Before you answer, consider this anecdote, which Kegan also records in his article.

Not long ago, HBS professor Heidi Gardner presented a case she’d cowritten on Bridgewater to her class. “So how many of you would like to work at Bridgewater?” she inquired toward the end of the discussion. Fewer than five hands went up in a class of 80. “Why not?” she asked. One young woman who’d been an active and impressive contributor to the conversation answered: “I want people at work to think I’m better than I am; I don’t want them to see how I really am!”

And yet, how many people would disagree with Ted Mathas, the head of the mutual insurance company New York Life, who told Goffee and Jones: “When I was appointed CEO, my biggest concern was, would this [job] allow me to truly say what I think? I needed to be myself to do a good job. Everybody does.”

What to make of these two views? Are people being disingenuous (or perhaps naive) when they aspire to bring their true selves to work? Certainly one might want to work in a company that makes you the best you can be without widely advertising the missteps you make along the way. Kegan is quick to point out that there are other ways to realize people’s full potential. But he also suggests that some people think they’d prefer an embarrassment-free work zone because they cannot imagine how something so painful at work could lead to something expansive and life changing.

Before you decide which view you agree with, take this assessment that Kegan and his associates have developed, and see how well suited you are to traveling down the no-spin path to fulfilling your highest potential. 

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