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  • AutorenbildJulia Holewa

What are we afraid of?

Aktualisiert: 11. Juli 2023

My partner recently asked me to review an application he wrote for a job he was really into. We all have been there and we all know the harsh reality of job-hunting: crippling anxiety, stress, pessimism. Rare sparks of confidence. We push ourselves through this uncomfortable process, often holding a wobbly protection shield, only allowing ourselves to open up and see a new future if there's already proof we'll be in it. But this application was different. And he was very confident. Not because he met all the job requirements. He felt confident because he chose to simply introduce his true self. The most honest application he ever wrote, he said. He described his personal journey, shared some of his life learnings, realizations and failings over the past years, what makes him skilled in relationships with people and team members and how he grew through challenges in previous jobs. What he strives for, and why. And how he thinks he is a good fit for this position. Well done, I thought. If I read an application like that I would die to meet this person and talk to them a bit more (I am aware I'm biased).

The point is: He opened up and invited the company to meet his true self, open and self-reflective. Then the rejection mail came and was nothing but an auto-sent one-liner.

Granted, showing openness alone indeed does not give you anything in this economy. Nor should it ever be conditional or transactional. Authenticity is no tit for tat. But our professional environment doesn't really encourage or reward it, either. His application was an honest invitation - left unanswered.

It hit home for me. Over the past years of my own work life, I found myself in multiple situations where the level on which I expressed myself caused... let's say surprise on the other end. With transparently expressing your truth, your needs, or your challenges around work, you don't always find an audience. Deeper communication levels with team members or managers seemed to be perceived as unconventional. I never quite understood this observation, and more often than not just blamed my personality and being a so-called "sensitive person" (yes I used quotation marks because I think everybody is). Aren't we all living and feeling humans with inner journeys that actually have very much to do with how we show up at our job - or how we don't?

Disarming or harming?

Whatever the situation might be - 1:1s, interviews, team meetings or discussions with colleagues. Some of us will know the tension and the tickling feeling of dooming risk when we bring our true colors into play. Does this belong here? Does it help this work relationship or will it hurt it? Is it constructive? "I was struggling with this project dynamic, as I have issues being loud just to be heard. It demotivated me and it made me hide from important discussions I should've joined much earlier." Or "I realized that I am imposing harmful limiting beliefs on myself that result in stagnated growth in my role and additional pressure on myself. I am leaving that behind now and I'm ready to grow into next challenges". Whoever reads and relates to this will probably know: reactions vary from appreciative to alienating. How do I react to this? That’s a bit personal. Is that necessary? At the end, being transparent often doesn't help relationships the way it actually could. Why do we shy away from deeper and more authentic forms of communication at work? Why is it so uncommon - or even uncomfortable for us?

Fact is, we are not used to form work place relationships based on transparency and externalized self-reflection. Instead, we got convinced over the past decades that the work world is sterile and must not be contaminated by any of our inner truths. Like a body that is desensitized from an allergy by years of immune therapy (this analogy just came to me hearing my partner sneeze in the other room), our work world got desensitized. Barely reacting anymore. And exactly like in immune therapy, we gradually switched off some parts of ourselves at work - only that those are exactly what makes us - us. What makes us human. What makes us being close to each other and what shows us how similar we all really are. Mental and emotional transparency challenge a system that is built to function without it. So are we afraid of challenging a system - or are we afraid of ourselves?

Openness is a culture medium

While both are subjective, there is an important difference between openness and oversharing and what effect they have on human connection. Being open and transparent can be an attitude on how to go about life. Or a mindset of self-growth. Or sometimes just a point of view. But most importantly, it is building on self-reflection, a skill that allows deeper understandings of ourselves and the world we live and work in, deeper connections to others, and less ego attachment or shame. And if reciprocated, transparency can be a simple yet powerful way of fertilizing growth by boosting conversations and learning processes as a group. I believe that teams are missing out on an opportunity to grow together by being invited to grow for themselves first - and invited to express that towards others. Maybe we should rethink what we think is professional in the work place?

Well, yes, I get it. It's not that simple and it touches probably all of the most complex levels there are. Personality and character. The degree to which people like or want to reflect on things. Education, social environments and their structural dynamics as well as industry bubbles. Company cultures and levels of psychological safety. They are also cultural differences at play on how much transparency is comfortable or even polite and how relationships at work are approached in general. Just not everybody wants to lay out their inner thoughts and nobody should need to if they don't. Nobody should feel forced to open up. Honestly, we already have too many things forced upon us and so many other big fish to fry. But I believe many of us actually operate like that. We have complex inner worlds, complicated thoughts and gain insights from introspection - ready to be expressed and to be learned from as a group. Others might not be that expressive, but they might be looking for honest support, genuine mentorship or aspire a deeper feeling of belonging to a team. And then too often this transparency-to-connect sprouts out like a little seedling - and dies in the drought. It is discouraging, but it is also a lost opportunity.

Let's (re)connect as ourselves

Many organizations are struggling with building and keeping relationships, and challenged by quiet quitting and paradigm shifts around new work. And I don’t even want to to begin with the whole AI avalanche and its inevitableness of it changing our (work) lives sooner or later. Whatever the future holds - and I feel like we have less of a clue than ever before - I believe there will be no other way for us to tackle all of it if we are afraid of being close to each other, and close to ourselves. Human connection is our super skill, and our main asset. Individually, but also as a team. Our way of life and work will change one way or another, and it's up to us to decide in what ways we want to keep it all together. I believe the power of relationships and connection has always been - and will always be crucial, now more than ever. And it's the relationship with ourselves that can open the door to connecting with others in more profound and fruitful ways.

We shouldn't feel like we put our work personas at risk by showing our true selves and we shouldn't keep continuing to prioritize the former. We should work on structures and formats that allow humans to work and grow as humans, utilizing introspection, reflection and collective learning. And we should de-stigmatize deeper - which by the way does not mean intimate - relationships at work.

Let's encourage each other to really bring ourselves to the table and to learn from each others' learnings. Let's encourage teams to invite each other on their inner and outer journeys as a group. And let's be aware that what feels uncomfortable at first might be exactly where the growth and the future is - it is usually like that in life. So whenever you see, hear or read something and you feel that little seelind coming through on the other end - just accept the invitation and enter the conversation. It might just hit home for you, too. What are we afraid of?


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