Remember when we were encouraged to leave our personal lives at home and be ‘just business’ in the workplace? That notion is dying…there is a new calling to be 100% OURSELVES 100% of the time.
Once upon a time in a consulting world far far away, there was a poet who turned into workaholic witch.
I had once been a creative soul that wrote poetry in dark Parisian cafes, fueled by a dinner of melodrama and extra long cigarettes. Back in the US, I wore an orange beret and furiously wrote mad metaphors, convinced that our emotional plight as humans was the only cord that connected us on earth. This overly passionate attitude, however, didn’t seem to mix well with Corporate America. I went through a nasty breakup and was told to pull myself together-no one needed to know my personal drizzle, which was being left in tissues across cubicles. Thinking I could combat sadness with humor, I used a limerick in an executive email but was quickly reprimanded, “Heidi, really. First tears, now rhymes? Can you please be more professional?”
I shut up and conformed.
After a few years, a MBA, and a job as a management consultant, my metamorphosis was complete. The beret was replaced with black power suits and designer pumps, carefully disguising the desires and frustrations within me. I worked 80 hours a week and spent my nights in overpriced hotel rooms carefully placing MBA words like “synergy” and “leverage” into PowerPoints so that I could look smart and justify high MBA prices. The new ‘career me’ had no tolerance for people that displayed emotion and other unhealthy habits. I needed to set a good example for my team. We are paid to be doers not dreamers, I thought. And if you dare to have a personal life, it should be kept a secret.
A young girl on another team had been dumped by her boyfriend. She cried during a client meeting and then took the next day off to recover. I was mortified. I took my team aside and had a serious conversation with them.
“I won’t tolerate such behavior. We DO NOT show emotion at work and we especially DO NOT cry here. If you are sad, go home, and cry in the shower.”
“Heidi,” one said, “aren’t you ever sad?”
“No,” I Iied.
“Then you don’t have a real life.”
My own team couldn’t relate to me outside of my position in the company.
I didn’t know my clients outside of work deliverables.
And worst of all, I didn’t reveal, nor much like, myself. The part of me that I once so cherished-the writer with crazy ideas-had gone mute.
In a rash attempt to bring back social connection in the workplace, I organized more wine outings to get to know the full personas of my peers and clients.
However this was too little, too late. I was burnt out from work, and thirsty for more connection in my life. I quit my job, traveled the world, and starting writing other people’s stories (from performance artists to preacher’s wives). I emerged reborn and started a new consulting career where I listened to people -their challenges, fears, and problems. In addition to being a better person, I was also a better consultant as I was able to connect to my clients in every part of their life, not just what happened inside the board room. I deleted “synergy” from my vocabulary and instead replaced it with “empathy”.
As many people know, I recently joined a firm that shares my beliefs and stresses the notion of “bringing your whole self to work.” At first it felt weird, especially when my “whole self” came with failure. From home to work life hurdles, it’s painfully uncomfortable to admit that we aren’t always rockin’ the universe. I certainly worry about how I’m perceived (“I messed up that meeting- Am I worthy of a paycheck today?” “Does everyone really need to know my car is towed..um…again?”). However, perhaps by admitting our innate “human-ness” our business relationships will start to deepen. I have discovered that asking for help is sometimes the best way to foster a relationship. People connect on fallibility (“I can relate…and I can help”) as opposed to ego competitions where everyone pretends to be perfect.
I had once been coached to be tough to get ahead…but in reality it is through softness that we push forward.
After all with the rise of social media, we are continually sharing more and more about ourselves, erasing the lines between work and personal. We are moving toward a new authenticity. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll be wearing a beret writing poetry again, and tweet about it to the corporate world.
In every office
you hear the threads
of love and joy and fear and guilt,
the cries for celebration and reassurance,
and somehow you know that connecting those threads
is what you are supposed to do
and business takes care of itself.