Are you wearing a mask to work?
We work with many amazing people who tell us they endeavour to leave parts of themselves at home, only to present their ‘work selves’ in the office. Many are choosing to hide behind a work mask. I wanted to write about this subject because I remember being there myself. It eventually became soul-destroying. I’ve since gone on to explore why it’s so commonplace in our organisations.
As humans, we are social animals so being accepted by others is hardwired into our brains. Our desire for social cooperation is tied to our very survival. Our ancestors had a better chance of staying alive by being part of a tribe that approved of them. They were stronger in numbers and each person played an important role in the group. Fast forward 30,000 years and we still have this subconscious need to be accepted, even if it means not being truly ourselves.
Leaders often claim their workers are happy and fulfilled when in reality, people are modifying their behaviour to get by in an environment that ultimately doesn’t feel safe. The work mask essentially supports us to protect parts of ourselves we don’t want to share, in fear we’ll be judged or criticised in some way. Our attempts to hide parts of who we are is a defence mechanism that enables us to ‘fit in.’ In not being true to ourselves, however, we inhibit our ability to do our best work and shut off the most creative and compassionate aspects of our nature.
The consequence of not being ourselves
We’ve come to learn that it’s impossible to separate ourselves without causing some level of harm. When we suppress our feelings to get on with what we perceive is expected of us, over time, we forget who we are. This was certainly true for me. Humans share a common desire; to be accepted by others for being authentically themselves. When we don’t feel safe enough to do that, we begin to adapt our behaviour to suit the environment we are in. We subconsciously create characters to get our needs met.
Society has conditioned us to believe that the work mask requires us to be rational, masculine, and in our heads. As a result, we cut ourselves off from our feelings, our bodies, the feminine and our souls. We forget the importance of warmth, connection and compassion. Over time, we come to feel the emptiness of that separation in our work. In teams, these feelings manifest as frustration and indifference in environments where we don’t feel safe to be ourselves, share our feelings or speak our truth.
We must remember that yes, we are beings built to think but equally we are built to feel. Doing our best work requires us to connect with both our thoughts and our feelings authentically so that we can relate to ourselves and each other in more meaningful ways.
How did we get here?
Making time for emotional and relational development is considered optional or counterintuitive to many leaders. Traditional narratives advocate that we should keep our personal and professional lives separate. All of which is loaded with the expectation that we bring our “professional” selves to work and don the work mask.
But how did we get here?
As the world became more complex, opportunities for commercial growth became abundant. Leaders applied more control in an attempt to deliver greater performance and results, demanding more from their workforce.
Workers laboured longer hours and spent less time with their families.
People’s sense of self-worth became attached to their work.
There was no room to consider emotional needs when the primary focus was performance, financial reward and shareholder return.
My theory is that in suppressing their own emotional needs, many leaders unknowingly sacrificed their own authenticity and emotional health. This led to a generation of people who worked hard, kept their heads down and their feelings to themselves.
I don’t believe this was a conscious choice but one which emerged from the perceived opportunities of the day. This hard work of previous generations is admirable. They contributed to building a post-war society in which we now have more freedom than any other generation in human history and for that, we should be truly grateful.
However, something new is emerging.
Our younger generations are demanding healthier work environments, more meaningful relationships and space to be themselves. They no longer conform to the idea of wearing the work mask. They challenge the status quo.
Bringing our whole selves to work
The challenge now is to create organisations that inspire people to bring their whole selves to work. Cultivating environments that enable people to feel that they matter. It’s only when people feel safe to be themselves will organisations get the very best from their teams.
We believe the answer lies within.
Developing self-awareness enables us to integrate all of who we are with what we do. Knowing what we value, what motivates us and how we’re able to contribute, builds inner confidence, resilience, and creativity. These are essential qualities that lead us to greater autonomy and self-direction. This is a journey to understanding who we are at a deeper level, so that we show up at work more whole, tapping into our full potential as human beings. Deepening emotional awareness is the foundation of creating more human and self-managed ways of organising, which we believe is the future of work…
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