Susan David on Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work

A conversation with the best-selling author of "Emotional Agility."

We hear a lot about the term “bring our whole self to work,” but as Susan David, a member of Thrive’s Scientific Advisory Board and the best-selling author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Lifeexplains, the term is often misunderstood. Thrive recently sat down with David to talk about why bringing our whole selves to work is so important for both for individuals and companies, and ways we can integrate our work selves with our emotions and our values. 

What does bringing our whole selves to work mean? 

Bringing our whole selves to work is the idea that we’re in a workplace or a work context in which we don’t feel that there are parts of ourselves that we need to hide, that we’re ashamed of, or that we’d like to elevate but don’t feel encouraged to. It’s really about bringing an integrated sense of who we are as a person. 

Thrive: Why is that sense of integration important? 

Because wholeness at its core is about the integration of who we are as people. We all have our emotional experiences, our backgrounds, our life lessons, our wisdom, the things that excite us and our values. When we bring our whole selves to work, we’re in a context that allows all these parts within ourselves to shine in a way that feels integrated.

Thrive: And what’s our experience like when we don’t feel that sense integration or wholeness? 

That’s segmentation, which is when we don’t feel like our values or strengths are being seen or appreciated. With segmentation, we have the sense that there are parts of ourselves we need to hide. And there’s a robust body of research that shows segmentation is associated with lower levels of well-being. 

Thrive: You’ve written a lot about emotions and how they’re distinct from our values – how are they different? 

Our emotions are reactions and responses. Emotions come and go, but our values are more durable. Our values are life directions about who we want to be as people. Our emotions are signposts to our values, but they’re not the same as values.

Thrive: How does this working in a way that feels aligned with our values play out in the workplace? 

Imagine you’re being asked to do multiple things every day, and you don’t feel a connection between what you’re doing and your values and what you care about. In other words, you’re just going through the motions. That’s what’s called surface acting – and it’s the aspect of emotional labor that’s connected to higher levels of burnout.

On the other hand, when you have a sense of what your values are and you say, “Okay, I’m going to this meeting and I value collaboration. So I want to bring that value of collaboration to the meeting. I’m going to connect with people and try to understand them.” Or your value is fairness, and you say, “when I come to the meeting, I’m going to be fair and give each person a voice.” Then you’re integrating your values with the task you’re doing — and that kind of integration is associated with higher levels of well-being and lower levels of burnout.

Thrive: And why does this matter at the organizational level?

The impact is far-reaching. For companies, there’s a huge organization-wide impact when people are able to be wholehearted in their work. And that affects every aspect of the workplace, including not just employee experience, but customer experience, engagement, leadership capacity and organizational resilience.

Thrive: Why is the idea that we need to keep our emotions hidden at work so prevalent? 

The belief that we need to leave our emotions at home is a false narrative that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. It’s the idea that whatever can’t be measured or predicted — like emotions — has no place in the workplace. But saying don’t bring your emotions to work is like saying don’t bring your hair to work, or don’t bring your hands to work. What happens in that case is that people start suppressing their emotions, and you wind up with an amplification effect or emotional leakage. This is when we’re trying to push aside our emotions and end up blurting something out we didn’t mean in a meeting.

Thrive: But is there a danger of letting our emotions show too much at work?

Yes, we shouldn’t think that being authentic means wearing our emotions on our sleeves, or saying whatever we feel. That’s an overcorrection, and pushing aside other parts of ourselves, like our values, our wisdom and who we want to be in our careers. Giving disproportionate voice to our emotions at the expense of other parts of ourselves is not bringing our whole selves to work. If we think about our whole selves, we’re not only bringing our emotions, or only bringing our thoughts or our history. When we’re using emotions as a guide, we’re acting into a way that is healthy and wholehearted.

Thrive: Is there tension between the idea of wholeheartedness and maintaining healthy boundaries about work?

No, that’s a myth. Strong boundaries are about having a place of calm and connection with ourselves that allow us to pause and tap into our needs. Boundaries allow us to pause and say, “Well, you ask me that question, and I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, so I need a little bit of time to think about what my response is.” That’s a place derived from pausing, from self-reflection, andfrom knowing ourselves, which takes time and connection.

Thrive: Doesn’t our technology make it difficult to maintain those boundaries? 

Yes, it can be especially challenging to create boundaries in our technology-saturated work culture. But we start by remembering that bringing our whole selves to work happens before we log onto a Zoom call. It’s the hand on your heart that reminds you that you’re human, even though you’re operating with your head when you’re on a Zoom call or in meeting after meeting. 

Thrive: What are some tips, or Microsteps as Thrive calls them, for ways use technology in a healthy way?

We’re very tactile people — and social distancing does not mean emotional distancing. So as very tactile people we need to remind ourselves to be grounded. So one Microstep is to actually put your hands on your heart before you go on a Zoom call.

We can also do what doctors are reminded to do when giving patients bad news, which is to feel your feet on the ground. We’re of the earth, so reminding ourselves of our feet on the ground is a very important way of connecting with ourselves. So is taking a moment to breathe, or taking a minute to do a Thrive Reset.

And when we’re on the call itself, try asking how others are feeling, or taking a pause to connect with each other. Instead of framing it as, “what is our agenda today?” operate from the place of, “what is our objective? Who are we trying to be as a team?”

Thrive: Why are transitions important? 

Transitions can provide time and space to connect with our whole selves. Before the pandemic, more of us had transition times in our commutes to work — in cars, trains or walking or biking to work. The space of transition allows us to prepare. But even if we’re working from home and not yet back to full-time commuting, we can still create that space. Just before being introduced and called up, speakers or talk show guests are held in green rooms. So we can create what I call “green rooms of the mind.” That can mean listening to a beautiful piece of music, going for a quick walk, or doing five minutes of mindfulness exercises. Just even thinking about our intention as we move from our living space into our workspace can function as our mental green room.

Thrive: You’ve written about “the messy middle” – what do you mean by that? 

Liminal spaces can be very powerful. Another false narrative we sometimes buy into is that there’s a straight line from A to B, and that the solution is obvious if we just look hard enough. But we give too little thought to the liminal space, or what I call the “messy middle.” The messy middle is that space when you’re working on a project and you don’t know how to flesh it out, create a through-line or come up with a solution. There’s so much creativity and beauty in the messy middle — and that’s where our best ideas often come from.

Thrive: How can managers use this idea? 

So I’ve found there’s a real power when I say to my team, “it feels like we’re in the messy middle. So let’s just play around in this messy middle right now.” It’s powerful because it gives expression to the truth. It gets away from pretending we have all the answers, so it leads to more integration.

Another thing we can do as managers and leaders is reflect with our team that we don’t have the map yet, but we do have a compass. Even though things are complex, we’ve got a sense of who we want to be and how we want to be with one another. So as a leader, instead of pretending that there’s a map, you’re saying, “What is the compass of how we want to be with one another?”

Thrive: Why is naming your values important? 

When we’re experiencing difficulty in the workplace, we can ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be in this moment? Who do I want to be even just in the midst of this particular challenge?” Reminding yourself that there is a you inside of you, and asking what does the child in you need right now are small moments that are profoundly important.

However you do it, it’s important to reflect on your values, and act intentionally to use your emotions to guide those values and be integrated and wholehearted at work. It’s good for our well-being and it gives others permission to do the same thing. When we bring our whole selves to work, we’re bringing all parts of ourselves — our wisdom, our humanity, our compassion, our values, our aspirations, our best souls.

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