Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

Where is the Line Between the Personal and Professional?

Where is the Line Between the Personal and the Professional?

How much of our 'whole selves' should we bring to work? The Beautiful Truth's Co-founders explore.
By Adam Penny and Elizabeth Smith
12th Mar 2024

The barrier between our personal and professional worlds was blurring way before 2020. Whether through the idea of ‘bringing your full self to work’ or connecting your individual purpose and motivations to those of a corporation, companies are undeniably still grappling with the question of where the personal self stops and the professional self begins. Not even those still clinging to the costumes of suit and tie can conceal that a change is taking place. In a broader sense, the social contract between employee and employer in every sector is under evaluation.

In our opinion, the arbitrary boundary didn’t really hold up to much scrutiny in the first place. Hiding one’s true identity, emotions and character for the benefit of profit-driven uniformity was just that: hiding. And as with most things that are hidden, they reveal themselves in the end.

More questions less answers

As the concept unravels, a new space has been created and important questions posed: where should the line be between personal and professional? How much of our ‘whole selves’ should we bring to work? Can our personal sense of purpose always fit with who we work for? And how accommodating should our businesses be to our individual personalities? Answers to these ambiguous questions are manifesting across both HR policies and leadership visions that we endorse or praise. They are unfolding live and a fixed, universal conclusion is unlikely to ever be realised. Instead, we face a continual evolution.

How much of our ‘whole selves’ should we bring to work?

The question of where one self stops and another starts itself seems to be a false binary. Our values, personalities and capabilities come to life in different ways in different contexts – and are particularly impacted by who we are spending our time with. Another way to explain it is that our identities are always relational. Walt Whitman puts a finer point on it in his poem Song of Myself, 51:

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Welcome to the family

As businesses rush to overcompensate and invite the whole person to be integrated at work, we propose some nuance is needed in the perceptions of ourselves and of others. If our identities are contextual, fluid and unfixed, we don’t need to have all facets of our life and personality demonstrated at work. Otherwise we may find we’ve created a box for ourselves.

“Accommodating a sense of privacy and allowing people to explore versions of themselves at work could, ironically, be the way we allow people to discover their fullest self.”

We are complex creatures who need the freedom to evolve. The overlooked benefit of a more nuanced approach is that you can explore your ‘potential’ at work, unencumbered by the constraints that might occur in different contexts such as where or how you grew up. Different energy, skills, motivations and characteristics can come to the fore. Accommodating a sense of privacy and allowing people to explore versions of themselves at work could, ironically, be the way we allow people to discover their fullest self. A business is not a family. As Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, famously noted: “A family is about unconditional love, despite, say, your siblings’ bad behaviour. A dream team is about pushing yourself to be the best teammate you can be, caring intensely about your teammates, and knowing that you may not be on the team forever.”

Has the pendulum swung too far?

Yet nurturing and channelling the true identities and intrinsic motivations of employees makes a lot of sense.

Supportive environments can catalyse our interest in a particular cause. If this is followed by taking action in a manner that aligns with our inner values, the power of the workforce to create momentum is huge. It can also provide a sense of security, belonging and inspiration for people – which is no insignificant feat as we all look for more meaning through our work.

“Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output.”

Simon Sinek

Rather, instead of getting hamstrung on a simple answer to the perceived dichotomy of work versus personal, businesses should instead be focused on laying the foundations of psychological safety and compassion. If our workplace cultures embody these, then the ever-changing passions and proclivities of the workforce can not only be accommodated but can also contribute productively to an organisation’s positive impact. As Simon Sinek puts it succinctly: “Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output.”

When approached correctly, the right culture becomes a virtuous circle. When people can self-actualise at work, they are in a stronger place to transcend selfish desires, consider their impact, foster empathy, embrace open-mindedness and think about being kinder. This means a balancing of the personal and the professional. It means harmonising the different contexts that allow us to explore what we might care about and how we might be better versions of ourselves over the course of our lives. Counterintuitively, holding space for the personal and the professional to remain distinct can allow both to flourish.

Adam Penny and Elizabeth Smith are Co-founders of The Beautiful Truth.