Bring yourself to work day: Why separating personal life and work life is a mistake

By Mike Malone, Vistage Chair, former Chief Executive Officer of Gryphon Software Corporation and a former US Marine Corp


Work is work and home is home. Or so we’re told. From school onwards, we’re taught it’s ‘business, nothing personal.’ To keep things professional and never take your personal life to the office.

These idioms may be spouted as gospel by managers and business coaches around the world. But they are, of course, impossible. Whether you’re a CEO or an intern, your personal life will affect your time at your work. Colleagues will know someone is having a good or bad day, no matter how hard it’s hidden.  

But business leaders put undue pressure on themselves to act like everything’s fine. So why do we try so hard to split the personal and the business?

Daily peaks and troughs

People are used to dealing with the daily peaks and valleys of running businesses and managing stress at work. Some issues are out of our control, but there are also many we can fix. When business leaders have a high-performing business, they assemble their team and collectively come to the best solutions. They evaluate for reasonableness, risk, affordability and time. They decide on a course of action – and then execute.

But things change when personal problems are ignored in the workplace.

When issues arise in our life, we feel the need to be strong, so we keep our personal ‘stuff’ at work to ourselves. We refuse to be vulnerable. In our minds, we cannot be perceived as weak or unable to manage stress at work. We also don’t have a clue how to solve personal problems by ourselves.

At Vistage, CEOs  are encouraged to move towards acknowledging the ‘whole human’ – not just the ‘work self’ – and bringing ‘the personal’ forward.

Remember: confidentiality is the number one rule when it comes to honesty at work. When confidentiality is king, people can feel free to reveal their true selves, and the by-product is trust.

This way, we create a culture where the company can determine if the issues involved are serious enough to require professional help. The outcome is everyone can work together – towards a happier colleague, and a more productive team.

Vulnerability is strength

It may seem counter-intuitive, but those CEOs confident and open enough to show vulnerability among their peers are often stronger in the long run.

As far back as 2011, a study by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) surveyed CEOs who had achieved significant success in their career. To the researcher’s surprise, vulnerability was a leading trait found among every single subject. Despite wide acceptance of the results, many business leaders have still not fully internalised and acted on them. Being vulnerable as the person in charge is still too often seen as weakness.

The opposite is true: vulnerability brings teams closer together, especially when it’s a leader being open and honest. Indeed findings from a 2007 Personnel Decisions International study suggest that teams who allow vulnerability among colleagues display enhanced attention and performance to their work.

Be your true self

We’ve all been there; The colleague in front of you putting on a braggadocious performance. Confident, gesticulatory…and completely transparent.

It’s a fairly simple rule, but be who you really are. Honestly will ensure people see you as authentic, trustworthy and someone to work hard for. In short, you will earn the respect of others – even if that honesty means divulging a little of your personal self.

Among its findings, the MGSM study found one CEO who, upon being promoted to management, felt unsure of how to balance his personality and newfound professional role. He admits to switching uncomfortably between ‘the boss’ and the ‘everyday him’, never too authoritative, never too honest. His inconsistent behaviour meant that his colleagues wasted energy trying to second-guess him and the knock-on impact was poor performance and financial results.

The CEO realised that he needed to stop questioning his style and focus on his authentic self. Instead of faking his business persona, he brought his true key values from outside of work – fairness, accountability, empathy and connection. After that, his team began to engage with him in increasingly positive ways, and his superiors became more trusting and supportive. The effect was a huge increase in his leadership effectiveness ratings and a threefold increase in the company’s profits over the next five years.

Associate with people you can trust

While it’s never wise to form cliques or cabals in the office, having a handful of people which you can trust, and to who you can open-up completely, is a healthy thing.

Finding a work confidant is especially important for leaders and CEOs, who often report a feeling of isolation around their work. Such bottlenecking is never healthy, for business or personal wellbeing. Isolation has been found to compromise decision-making, create closed-mindedness and curb innovation – which now, more than ever, is the lifeblood of company growth and success.

Who you confide in is down to you, but there are professional considerations. Personal life is one thing, but sharing business fears and worries is perhaps best done with your management team. If you’re still not comfortable doing that, peer to peer advisory groups can be a great form of private therapy. The main point is not what you disclose or discuss, it’s more the way you do it.

Try to manage people in a way that simply isn’t you, and the lack of authenticity will show. Be yourself, however, and your passion and values will instil your staff with confidence, drive and enthusiasm.

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