To Be (ourselves) or Not to Be (ourselves)?

self-portrait: to be or not to be..The Harvard Business Review recently ran an article called Do You Really Want to Be Yourself at Work? which raises some interesting philosophical questions like: What does it mean to “be yourself”? What would it look like to “be who you are becoming”?

As a professional recruiter who is invested in human development and creating environments that support people to grow, I read this article with interest, especially when it talks about corporate cultures that are invested in developing employees.

For three years [the researchers] went around the world, asking hundreds of executives to describe the attributes of their ideal workplace. Topping the list was an environment where people could be themselves and where the company invested in developing them (and everyone they worked with) to be the very best they could be.

I would argue that creating an environment, a corporate culture, where people could be other than who they are would help people more than attempting to be “the very best they can be”.  That said, a corporate culture that is, “dedicated to developing every one of its people by weaving personal growth into day-to-day work” is on the right track.  Rather than weaving “personal growth” into the day-to-day work, companies might want to consider putting the focus on the totality of its employees growing.  How does that happen?  One way is by supporting everyone to be risk-takers – all of our mistakes and failures are opportunities for creativity and development:

In these companies employees didn’t spend any time hiding their inadequacies or preserving their reputations. Rather, everyone — from the CEO on down — was expected to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In fact, both organizations had elaborate systems designed to promote individuals into roles a bit beyond their comfort zones to ensure that they would inevitably learn from failure. In this way people became masters not of any particular skill but of learning to adjust to new situations, which produced organizations that were remarkably resilient.

Yes and!  Learning to learn seems key.  The work that I do as a coach is about finding new performances that not only allow people to go beyond their comfort zones but to discover who we are becoming.  I was interviewing a young woman this week who constantly peppered her speech (as many young people do) with “like” and “you know”. I was coaching her to be more self-conscious of this to help her present in a more mature and professional manner.  I suggested that she use performance as a tool to do that.  She asked me, “You mean like my alter-ego?”.  As a good improviser I accepted her offer and appreciated that this is a way she could be other than who she is.

I took the survey embedded in the article to answer the question, Would you love to work in a place where you could truly be yourself?   Yes, I do “thrive in a deliberately developmental organization”!  One important way that an organization can become “deliberately developmental” is to allow people to be other than who they are – to perform in new ways, to play new roles and to perform our potential.

The non-profit All Stars Project Inc. is an example of an organization that is “deliberately developmental” – it is a model that for-profit cultures could learn from.

Let’s develop!


Building conversation (philosophically speaking)

I am very fortunate to be studying philosophy with Dr. Fred Newman, a brilliant “people’s philosopher” and long time mentor, colleague and friend. Fred has been giving our Developmental Philosophy Group practical training in the art of discourse.

We are learning how to talk to one another. It turns out that most of us are not particularly skilled in building a conversation and in speaking to each other without putting ourselves at the center of the conversation. Fred asked us, “What if you eliminated the self all together and think only of the other?”.

Not surprisingly we were able to build more in our conversations. After all, we live in an “arrogant culture” where we often don’t think others have much to say. We try to say “the right thing” in order to be the smartest person in the room. It turns out that “saying something right” stultifies the conversation.

This way of conversing goes on everywhere and especially in business. It’s an individuated way of knowing and relating. A building versus a knowing learning model is where creativity and innovation live. We all have the capacity to build, organize, help each other and create conversation. It’s a lot more intimate and, frankly, it might just be the right thing to do!

A philosophical tidbit

Yesterday I had the pleasure of re-joining the Developmental Philosophy Class, taught by Dr. Fred Newman, here in New York City.  Newman is a Stanford-trained philosopher who has been my friend, colleague and teacher for many, many years.  Learning philosophy and politics from Fred has enriched my life in more ways than I can express in words.  So it was joyous to be back in class this week.  You can read more about Fred Newman at his website:

In a previous blog post I referenced a paper that Fred recently wrote with Dr. Lenora Fulani called “Let’s Pretend” [] — the class was an opportunity for us to discuss our understandings of pretending and its relationship to development and transformation.  In the course of our philosophical conversation I deepened my ability to recognize the ways that we are overly cognitive in our understanding of ourselves and the world.  Cognition is, of course, important and our cognitive bias prevents us from embracing the fact that we are a performing species.  

Fred shared with us how he learned to ride a bike as an adult while he was at Stanford.  His friend told him to get on the bike and pretend that he is a bicycle rider.  He wasn’t “pretending to learn to ride a bike”, which was our overly cognitive way of understanding Fred’s story.  In the moment of learning to ride a bike if you start to think “oh boy, I’m riding a bike!” it’s not uncommon to fall off the bike.  The activity demands full attention.  This is an important distinction — it is not a cognitive activity — it is a performance. 

There comes a moment when we stop pretending and we become (in the case of Fred’s story, a bike rider), therein lies the transformation.

For the world to transform — along with all of its people — we will have to create new paths to take and that will require “a lot of pretending”.