The Boardroom Series: Should you bring your whole self to the boardroom?

We are increasingly encouraged to “bring our whole self” to work. But what does this mean for leaders? And is it really a good idea to bring your whole self to the boardroom? Or, as the Economist warned, is that something that “no one wants to see”.

Our research and experience tell us that, done properly, bringing more of yourself to work can improve wellbeing and performance, for you and for your team. But we have seen the risks as well as the benefits and believe it’s important to proceed knowingly.

In a two-part series, we are going to explore what bringing your whole self to work means and how to make this a positive experience for you and your team.

In this article, part 1, we focus on why and how you, as a leader, can bring your whole self to work.

In part 2, we will look at what you can do to encourage your teams to bring more of their whole selves to work too.

What does ‘bringing your whole self to work’ mean?

Bringing our whole self to work means revealing our authentic motivations, intentions, aspirations and fears. Rather than adopting the persona we think is required for the role, it allows us to display our imperfections, acknowledge failure, and accept fear. Instead of being a superhero, we become vulnerable. By stripping off the mask, we can connect with others in a genuine way, build more engagement, take more risks, and achieve better results. And, to cap it all, we can be happier too.

So goes the theory, at least.

And while we agree with these principles, we have also seen in our work the dangers of getting this wrong: the blow-back from unguarded revelations, the challenge of acknowledging fear when the board and your team are looking for optimism, and the scapegoating when someone accepts responsibility for failure.

We recommend a nuanced approach, allowing leaders to be authentic, but without creating embarrassment or sending a ripple of panic through our board or teams when they are seen as less than 100% confident about the future. And to be clear, we do not encourage over-sharing or revealing truths about ourselves and our personal lives that are better kept private.

Removing the tyranny of positivity

Harvard psychologist Dr Susan David, Ph.D. warns of the “tyranny of positivity” created when we only allow time for upbeat emotions, or when we constantly suppress negative emotions. This places an unrealistic burden that can antagonise stress and worry, creating emotions that are more intense and potentially detrimental.

Dr David promotes emotional agility where, instead of trying to control or ignore our negative emotions, we focus on conscious awareness and acceptance of them. Especially when faced with challenges beyond our control, accepting our emotions of fear, worry or stress can make things seem more surmountable.

This is why we believe in the value of allowing more of your whole self to show up in the workplace – fears and apprehensions as well as optimism and confidence – and why we encourage emotional agility.

Leading with emotional agility: Bring your whole self to the boardroom

Mike Robbins, writing for Berkeley University, describes five dimensions to bring your whole self to work: be authentic, utilise the power of appreciation, focus on emotional intelligence, embrace a growth mindset, and create a champion team.

So, how do we apply these to leadership?

1. Be authentic

It’s natural that there will be pressures and emotions that you are uncomfortable sharing with your board, colleagues, or team in case of a negative reaction. But it is critically important to have a release for feelings of worry and fear before they become deep-seated, leads to bad decisions, or paralyse action.

We see enormous benefits in having someone with whom you can be authentic about your hopes and fears. Whether it is a friend, a mentor, or a coach, we encourage all leaders to find someone with whom they can speak without a filter. Always being the superhero or trying to bottle up emotions is the fast track to burnout – get off that path now!

2. Utilise the power of appreciation

As a leader, it’s tempting to keep looking forward and run full speed towards the next challenge. Not only can this constant state of firefighting be stressful, it also limits your capacity to grow and develop as an effective leader.

Instead, we emphasise the importance of taking stock of learnings from the previous challenge that could make the next journey much easier. In doing so, it is as valuable to highlight successes and what made things go well as to consider the lessons from things that went less well.

We recommend investing 15-20 minutes each week to complete a ‘Success Audit’. This includes sitting down and reflecting on five questions: (1) What one activity gave you the most fulfilment or enjoyment this week? (2) What one outcome are you most proud of from the week? (3) What one action generated the most value this week? (4) What one learning has been most valuable to you this week? (5) What will this awareness change about your approach to next week?

This small-time investment can help to reduce stress, improve productivity, and accelerate future progress.

3. Focus on emotional agility

While Robbins refers to emotional intelligence, we prefer to look for emotional agility: being aware of and accepting one’s emotions.

Opening yourself to your emotions can be fearful and intense. Therefore, developing emotional agility should be approached gradually. The first few steps we suggest are as follows:

  1. Strip away your unrealistic expectations. You’re only human and don’t need to be happy, fearless or optimistic all the time.
  2. Identify your emotions, whether negative emotions (such as fear, anger, frustration) or something positive (such as excitement, hope, or enthusiasm). It can take time to be able to learn and name your specific emotions, especially if we are more used to describe thoughts.
  3. Accept that it’s okay to feel the full range of emotions, even negative ones. You can be pleased to be given an opportunity, but also scared by the responsibility. Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself.
  4. Pause. Take some time and deep breaths before choosing to take action or make a decision.
  5. Act in line with your values. Ask yourself what really matters. Is your planned action going to help your colleague, team, or organisation, and bring you closer to your goal? Or is it being driven by your emotion – intended to make you feel better, to get revenge, to punish someone or to show that you’ve won?

While it might feel uncomfortable to start with, our experience has shown that with time, the value of emotional agility will become clear – improving relationships, communication, and board and team effectiveness.

4. Embrace a growth mindset

A growth mindset is one that values innovation and progress over perfection. But when the pressure is on, the brain’s natural response is to become risk-averse, thus limiting the potential to find creative solutions to challenges.

As a leader, you can ease your pressure and overcome challenges better by accepting that you can’t expect to have all the answers or never make a wrong decision. Take opportunities such as the following to explore this:

  • Actively seek out advice and others’ perspectives.
  • Openly acknowledging failure when it occurs, but always focusing on what you learned from it.
  • Explicitly asking for a colleague’s or your team’s critique of your plan.
  • Requesting feedback on your performance.

Willingly accepting limitations and seeking help is a powerful release, sends a positive message to teams and colleagues, and generates better results.

5. Create a champion team

Leaders often tell us that they feel they are constantly firefighting, are exhausted and have lost touch with their enthusiasm for work. They feel responsible, isolated, and exposed.

At these moments, it’s important to remember that your team and your board are on your side. It is very rare that they would want to see you fail.

To make sure that support is there, we recommend taking time to build a champion leadership team that includes positive relationships and well-being in its activities.

More and more of our clients are opting for Leadership or Board Retreats rather than the traditional planning off-site. In addition to time for strategic conversations, we are asked to incorporate activities to create the psychological safety to become a great team and to help leaders reset, recover, and revitalise so that their authentic voices can speak.

Your takeaway

We believe that stress can be healthy and life-enhancing if managed well. But destructive if ignored or managed poorly.

Bringing more of yourself to work can be a constructive approach to reduce stress and improve performance. Practising the steps we have outlined can help you remove the tyranny of positivity, overcome the loneliness of leadership, and do this safely.

As always, please feel free to get in touch if you would like any more information or guidance on the issues we have touched upon.

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