When the new head of human resources at a large organization was recently hired, she decided to introduce herself to her staff spread across North America in a video-conferencing call.
She told them she wanted to be "authentic." And then she went on to describe, in excruciating detail, her trauma-ridden childhood, bouts of depression and years in psychotherapy. She cried sporadically throughout.
By the time it came to the Q and A, many were too stunned to speak up, including one of my clients, who recounted the tale to me.
A desire to be authentic - with unflinching candour and open expression of emotions - is sweeping the workplace. Increasingly, people want to tell co-workers and staff: "This is who I am, this is what I think, this is what I've experienced, this is what I feel - and I don't care if you want to hear it or not."
While much of my work has been devoted to encouraging people not to hang up their feelings or personality at the corporate door, lately I've been wondering whether people have become too authentic at the office.
All of the life-coach imperatives to "bring your soul to work" may have eroded boundaries beyond what is healthy: The downside of people being authentically themselves is that they may express themselves as being authentically self-involved, mean, loud, obnoxious, direct to the point of rudeness, promiscuous with personal information, and other equally unattractive characteristics.
That boss, for example, may have been authentic, but it was at the expense of her squirming employees. Rather than make the connection she hoped for, she alienated them.
The mass desire to be authentic is relatively new. When I got my first corporate job in the early 1980s at the head office of an oil company, I was astonished at how buttoned-up people were. Whether it was joy, irritation or something in between, nobody expressed any emotion. Feelings were definitely to be left at home. I was rebuked on several occasions when I asked co-workers what I considered benign questions about their feelings and personal lives. They thought the questions were overly personal and crossed boundaries of office etiquette.
The erosion of boundaries shows up in many ways, from simple boorish behaviour to extreme acting out. Examples that clients have recently described to me include seeing co-workers clip toenails in the next-door cubicle, hang large pictures of scantily clad partners on the wall, provide cringe-worthy descriptions of fertility treatments, boast about sexual performance, react with rage to a perceived slight and tear a strip off a colleague in front of others.
Why have personal boundaries eroded? Blame electronic media, in part. Instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and e-mail are immediate, direct and foster a sense of intimacy, whether genuine or not. We forget that that the 500 people we have "friended" are not all real friends.
When we use these media, we are deprived of the non-verbal cues that occur in face-to-face interaction. These cues moderate how and what we communicate. They say, for example, that the person you are talking to is uncomfortable or annoyed or bored - or signal that you've gone too far. As a result, we lose our sense of place, who we are talking to, what they may be feeling or what is appropriate to share.
Unfortunately, the effect of electronic communication is more insidious. The quick, direct, tell-all style has also infiltrated face-to-face communication. We forget that most co-workers don't need, or want, to be privy to all the details of our lives.
Contemporary mass culture, with its too-much-information reality shows and incessant celebrity articles, are also to blame.
Fatigue and anxiety, too, are culprits. We talk without thinking and blurt out things we would think twice about if we were better rested or felt more secure. Under pressure, we lose our inner editor.
Workers are also displaying a growing neediness, I found in a survey I recently conducted among managers. This neediness has further eroded boundaries. Several survey respondents said they blow significant meeting time reluctantly and uncomfortably being forced to listen to staffers' woes about crazy neighbours, unemployed kids, demanding spouses and mean colleagues.
In today's anonymous workplaces - where results increasingly count for more than the people who get them, and where people don't feel looked after - it's easy to understand why some workers may want to be seen as special. What results is a loud cacophony of colleagues competing to say, "Look at me. Listen to me."
Some people also think they should be able to express themselves, no matter what effect their self-expression has on others. When I asked one senior manager why he had publicly torn a strip off of one of his employees, he responded: "I'm pissed. Why should I hide it? People should be open."
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