Whole self, best self, better comms

It’s National Inclusion Week, so thought I’d share a perspective or two I’ve been mulling over.

Specifically, I want to talk about the challenge people have about bringing their whole self to work. Of being themselves, largely uncensored, in the workplace.

Some interesting questions emerge.

Are you comfortable enough to be you?

When I’ve talked to people about trust, I have borrowed and doubtless corrupted a complex psychological principle, that of the Johari Window, as it was articulated to me by a leadership coach last year.

He talked about trust as being the moment at which you were open enough to build comfort with the individuals you were engaging with. But not so open as to build distrust (“why is s/he/them telling me this?”). The extent to which you reveal your ‘hidden self’ to others.

Depending on your personality, you may be at the more reserved end of the spectrum, or you may be on the oversharing end. But to gain comfort, then confidence, that it’s OK to be you, people need to accept your ventures into sharing. To express interest, support, understanding. To build trust.

As someone that grew up with a passion for science, technology and video gaming, for comic books and science fiction, for superheroes and transforming robots when they were at the fringes of our society – well, I’ve been called a nerd and a geek more often than I’ve ever faced a racist slur. Often by people I’m close to. And yet sometimes, it can hurt just as much – after all, I was born to my ethnic origins. I chose to love the things I love. Am I comfortable sharing them?

This tapestry – a complex web of passions and interests – they define me, in many ways, as much as my cultural identity. They define you. And if you carry those things with you, you will be more complete. And being complete unlocks possibility. I’ll come back to this.

From anti-racism to anti-discrimination

Anti-racism is, to my mind, perhaps the most important concept to become mainstream post the resurgence of BLM earlier this year. The understanding that there are institutional prejudices baked into our society that we need to fight in every way we can, to allow people to be their full selves, to empower them to attain what those unencumbered by those prejudices take for granted. And it was clear to us in open conversations with colleagues we had in the wake of BLM that they welcomed the opportunity to be more open about the racial aspect of their identity in the workplace.

The whole notion of becoming anti-racist is very powerful.

But, beyond racism, there are a thousand ways in which we can also casually discriminate against people for their choices and identity in other regards. From doing something as superficially mild as imposing a nickname on someone that has explicitly asked to be called something else, to something as potentially hurtful as dismissing a passion as I talked about above, to the long-standing issues around religion, gender equality, gender identity or a thousand other things.

The only way we can truly defeat discrimination is by substituting curiosity for judgement; by seeking to understand what motivates people to love the things they do, to understand why they champion the causes that matter to them, from BLM to veganism and beyond. It doesn’t mean embracing their perspective. It doesn’t even mean agreeing with it. But it means understanding that it is important to them – and respecting that.

Is Activism OK?

I saw that Coinbase this week has said that activism has no place in the workplace. They need to be 100% focussed on their mission.

This strikes me as somewhat exclusionary. For many, some form of activism – be it political, around equality issues, around environmental issues – can be a core part of our identity. An organisation doesn’t have to campaign on all the issues its employees care about – few organisations could do that coherently, not at any scale – but to deny employees the right to engage on those issues, to discuss them freely? Seems an odd thing to do, and not something that will shape an environment in which people can speak freely, be themselves, or come up with genuinely creative ideas.

Of course, guidelines need to be in place. You can’t deny others a right to their own world view, and the stronger your ideological convictions, the harder this can be to balance. Mutual respect needs to be a cornerstone of any policies here; something that can be hard to maintain in a national dialogue that sometimes seems built around tribalism and culture wars.

What does this have to do with comms?

image of Gemalto's Cyber investigators' chronicles comic

Comics made it into a campaign we ran for Gemalto a couple of years ago

One of the things that triggered this thought was a brainstorm my team was having, in which a colleague encouraged them to think about how their lives and passions would potentially impacted by the technologies and services our client was delivering. Inspired by their own affection for the music and persona of Britney Spears.

It was a eureka moment for some of the team.

Idea, after idea, after idea. Centred on fashion, live music, cooking and more – it helped the team to be empowered, to be encouraged, to be validated, to be reassured, that it was OK to bring their whole selves to work. That they didn’t have to be a professional, detached version of themselves. But they could be a professional, complete version of themselves.

To unlock our best potential, we have to be our best selves. To be our best selves, in many cases, we have to be our whole selves. Unlocking this in a workplace is hard. It runs counter to some popular wisdom about discussing key ‘personal’ issues in a professional context. It can generate conflict and land us in sensitive territory. It requires bravery, curiosity, empathy, acceptance.

But as anyone that’s been on a Zoom call in the last six months will tell you, the lines between personal and professional – if they weren’t already blurry – have practically disappeared in the pandemic era. And as any of our creatives will tell you, this is a necessary and integral part of doing the job – synthesising your passion for and experience of the world with all the elements brought up in the insights and research round a client brief.

It’s my hope to see more ‘whole selves’ brought to work in the days and weeks and months ahead. And that in unlocking people’s true selves, we will unlock a wealth of further inspiration and creativity. And continue to build a truly inclusive workplace, that delivers truly outstanding comms.

Written by Armand David, MD, Applied Innovation