When Our “Selves” Collide

Christina Chaplin Beyond Borders


I’m sure many of you would agree that you have a “work self” and a “non-work self”. For those of you with many years in the workplace under your belt, would you also agree that it has recently become harder to keep those “selves” separate? Do you feel like there is pressure to share more of your private self with your colleagues at work? Or maybe you’re from a younger generation and the concept separate selves seems unfamiliar and you’re asking yourself right now “why would I be anyone other than me all the time?” Our definition of self has been seriously challenged in the past years with the rise of social media, the entrance of the millennial generation in the workforce and the rising trend towards “authentic” leadership.

selves collideRecently, Erin Reid, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University School of Management, and Harvard Business School’s Lakshmi Ramarajan, published a paper in the Academy of Management Review titled Shattering the Myth of Separate Worlds: Negotiating Non-Work Identities at Work. Their research departs from a decades-old “myth of separate worlds” about the personal and professional, as well as from the limits of past management research on identity, which has primarily focused on at-work identity.

Based on an extensive review of research on management, gender and work, work-family, and sociology, Reid and Ramarajan develop a new theory of how people manage their non-work identities in the workplace, arguing that exploring the former has become increasingly important to understanding productivity, employee engagement and well-being, and power dynamics in the latter.

So if our non-work identities are important to business, does this mean the demise of the at-work and away-from-work selves? Is it ok to knock down that wall and be a 100% uncensored version of ourselves at work? Well, it depends...

There are various factors that can affect how easy or difficult it is to merge our two selves. The strongest is company culture. Some companies have cultures more inclusive to “being different” than others. In companies with an inclusive culture you’ll usually notice that everyone looks different, dresses differently, has varying tastes, interests, free-time activities, etc. This diversity is usually celebrated openly and thus there is little pressure to “hide” one’s non-work identity.

Another factor is an individual’s personality. Some people are just shyer and prefer not to open up to their work colleagues without building relationships with them first. If you have a colleague that doesn’t share the details of here weekend, don’t be offended or take it personally, she might just need more time to create a trusting relationship with you and open up. Others seem to share every last dirty detail of their lives, sometimes even to the point of oversharing. If you have a colleague guilty of this, just politely ask her to keep extensive conversations about her personal life to non-work environments. If you are interested in getting to know her better then you can have these kinds of conversations over lunch or a drink afterwards.

There are also factors that come more from the external environment and societal pressures. Social media has provided us all with our own public soapbox. Like never before every Jane, Dick or Harry is able to broadcast his or her ideas and life in as much detail as he/she chooses too. And there are people out there that are sharing a lot of details that would make many of us blush! While we all choose what and how much information we share on social media, lack of familiarity (or not thinking through the consequences) often leads people to inadvertently share details about their private lives with people they’d rather not. We also find ourselves faced with friend or connection requests from co-workers and other professional contacts that are more open with their use of certain more “personal” social networks. Since each person uses social media platforms for different reasons, it’s important to remember that you, and only you, decide what you’re comfortable with. Don’t be afraid of being open about it. A simple “I’m not a very advanced user of [social network] and so I prefer to just keep my connections on there to my family and close friends.” And if you are on another more professionally-focused site, offer to alternatively connect with them there.

This may be a situation that comes up often with Millennial colleagues or subordinates. This is a generation that has practically grown up with social media during much of their formative adolescent and early adult years (and depending on when they were born, even childhood). They have spent years relating to others and building relationships in the context of social media. It can seem odd to many Millennials that you wouldn’t want to connect online as they may use chat and social media more than email to stay in touch. Again, deciding which networks you are willing to use for these kind of relationships will help you to build productive working relationships with a generation that is less likely to write out an email and more likely to assume you saw the info in their status updates. This is a generation wants to connect with the CEO of the company even as an intern. Millennials, as well as professionals from other generations, look towards leadership to be more open, accessible and “authentic” than ever before, laying more pressure on executives to share more of their personal lives with their employees. To be engaged at work workers need to feel they have a connection with both their colleagues and leadership, and those connections are made by people, not by projects or deadlines.

There is one last factor that also affects where we draw that line between work and non-work selves – national culture. We often forget that in different countries people have different expectations as to where that boundary lies. From my personal experience Spanish culture blurs that boundary much more than American culture does. Over the years this cultural expectation forced me to learn to mix my two selves more than I would have on my own. As more and more of us are faced with working on diverse and international teams, this is an important point to keep in mind. It may seem completely normal to you to invite your team out for a round after work, but just remember that there are a bunch of cultural assumptions behind that gesture.

So go ahead, open up with your colleagues – celebrate a birthday, a promotion, or just a job well done with your team, but remember that we all draw the boundary between work and non-work selves in a different place, and the mark of a truly mindful professional is not to judge or force others into uncomfortable situations – respect and celebrate that diversity.

Christina Chaplin

Christina Chaplin

Head of Marketing, Talmundo

Thanks for sharing, Sarah! I imagine that was indeed an uncomfortable situation. Hopefully we'll all learn to remember our cultural prejudices when working on multi-cultural and multi-national teams in the future.
Sarah Barbod
Thanks so much for bringing up this topic. I remember years ago when my boss invited me to her bachelorette party at a club. I didn't feel comfortable going but if I turned down the invitation, it may have looked bad on my part for not participating in "afterwork activities". I ended up going & felt awkward the entire time I was there. As you say in the end of this piece, it takes a true professional to respect & not judge the social communications & events an employee accepts and/or declines.