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Work vs. Home Personality: My response troubled me for years…

Someone, whom I only knew socially outside of work, once said to me, “How is it that you are a Senior Executive at work and yet so “nice”?” I immediately responded, “You have not seen my work personality!”  Apparently satisfied with my response, the individual moved on to other topics.

However, my response troubled me for years.

Upon reflection, I sought to understand whether I had responded simply to conform to the common stereotype of how a Senior Executive was expected to behave, or, whether I genuinely changed into a different person each day as I went to work.

In Executive Education sessions on Leadership and Talent Management, I regularly ask participants for their perspective by posing the question, “Is your work personality different from your home personality?” Majority of participants respond in the affirmative with varying degrees of qualification. Rarely is there a response with an absolute negative. However, all participants are typically unanimous in responding to the follow-up question, “If you did not have to change your personality when you came to work, would it have an enabling or disabling impact on your productivity?” All seem to believe if they could be the same person everywhere; it is more likely to allow them to reach their true potential.

The question of whether our home and work personalities are same, different or partially overlap has been widely discussed. While there is vibrant debate on the issue, an authoritative scientific study that resolves these questions seems hard to find. The broad agreement on relationship between authenticity and individual effectiveness, as well as the blurring lines between work and personal lives, are hopeful signs; at least, in qualitative understanding of this important dynamic. Subscribing to the belief that one’s own life is the most fertile crucible for learning and growth; I have sought to seek understanding from my own experiences.

In early eighties, I was working at Texas Instruments. There used to be a saying that you must “check your emotions at the door” when you come to work. While I accepted it at the time, I often wondered if it was humanly possible to do so. The decisive moment of clarity came almost two decades later when Karl Newkirk, my Managing Partner at Accenture (then Andersen Consulting), asked to have dinner with me. At dinner, he very thoughtfully asked, “What’s going on with you?” I found the incisively personal nature of question surprising. I explained that everything was fine. I referred Karl to my performance as a Partner; which Karl acknowledged was quite satisfactory. Yet, Karl continued to insist that something did not seem right in my personal life. Finally, I revealed that I was going through a difficult divorce. Apparently, the trauma of involuntarily exchanging the priceless joy of being around my only daughter (then four years old) as she grew up, for weekend visitation, had taken its toll on me. Guided by the learned norms at Texas Instruments, I had not told anyone at work that I was going through a traumatic divorce. I thought I could compartmentalize that part of my life as I went to work. I was wrong. Despite my requests, Karl never told me what it was about my conduct that gave me away.  While I was able to get work done, I know that I was not the most pleasant person to deal with during that time. Perhaps that is what Karl saw.

As we walk in the office door each day, we carry along with us all the aspirations, fears, anxieties, and dreams that surround our lives – personal and work. Moreover, it influences how we perform. No wonder, most companies have extensive programs focused on overall employee wellness – physical and emotional – to assist employees cope with personal life events.  It is an explicit recognition that our performance as workers in the workplace depends on our overall well-being as an individual – in and out of the workplace. As our younger generation demands a new social contract with the workplace – one where workplace is the crucible of their personal learning and growth – the question of whether our work and home personalities are same or different gains increasing prominence.

While impact of major life events may be an extreme case, I believe that acting out, in general, as a different person at work than who we are at our core, is detrimental to our sustained effectiveness. Apart from being a source of stress for ourselves, some aspect of our behavior will give us away. We must not under-estimate the ability of our co-workers to see through us when we are not being authentic. That will most certainly affect our effectiveness.

Yet, it is understandable that there remain certain unique characteristics to our work or home environment that may not carry over to the other. I appreciate the perspective of two friends and colleagues on this issue. Don Tucker, a former Accenture Partner, believes that one must have the ability to compartmentalize to be effective at work. Mike Vitelli, former President of US Best Buy, says that he has learned to apply “judicious filtering” in interactions at work. Clearly, some are better at these capabilities than others are. However, both Don and Mike agree that we must be authentic in whatever aspect we decide to reveal ourselves at work. Else, we will be found out, eventually.

In conclusion, returning to the original example above, I have learned that my response to the individual was not well reasoned and thoughtful. Quite possibly, I had succumbed to the shallow stereotype of how an executive must behave. In fact, I did not, and cannot, change in such dramatic manner at work, as I might have implied by my answer.

Are you a different person at work than at home?

  • By Tariq Aziz on 5.31.2013 at 5:43 am

    Dr.Masud, I fully agree with your analysis, however I do think that at senior level, or let me say successful managers, need to disclipine themselves not to carry their domestic issues / problems or even sentiments to their office environment. While in an ideal world a manager who is successful in his official life tend to be successful in his domestic, however more often than not, we try to over stretch our capabilities and loose equilibrium (in either direction), which in my opinion definitly affect our performance (on either front).

    I am generally the same person at work and home and try not to carry work stress at home or home emotions at work, but can’t bet on it, after all I am a human…..

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