A few months back I had a lunch meeting at Google. My host asked if I could come a little early because it was “Take Your Kid to Work Day” and if we kept our original noon meeting time, we might have to wait a few minutes for our all-you-can eat free gourmet food. (I know, I know: first world problems. But I digress.)
Sure enough, at high noon, Gary Cooper did not show up, but throngs of big and little people did: the lunch line reminded me of a crowded cafeteria at an over-crowded high school. And what’d’ya know? I saw hundreds of whole children all over the place just having a blast. Imagine that: entire kids; none that I was aware of seemed to have forgotten parts of themselves at home that morning; not a one near as I could tell.
Many companies have days like these. “Take Your Pet to Work Day” also comes up once in a while. The last time I saw something like this, whole critters of all kinds popped up in cubicles, hallways, and offices. Entire dogs and cats. Even a bird or two. And every one of them all 100% there.
But I know that I’ve gone into work many days and failed to bring my whole self. Certainly, some of me might have been ruminating about issues at home or chewing on other matters of high personal significance like why my fantasy football team was floundering just because I didn’t know what “snake draft” was. But even then, I wasn’t bringing all of what I had with me.
Usually this manifested itself in my holding back, playing it safe, waiting for someone else to go first—and sometimes not even going second to follow right after them.
In more extreme but not uncommon situations, this manifested itself for me in resentment over something that might have happened weeks or months in the past, a kind of “I told you so!” feeling that I continued to carry with me though it served no constructive present purpose at all.
In the worst circumstances, I might intentionally come in late or leave early. I might also skip a meeting, especially if I could rationalize the futility of my participation. (Note to self: pre-determining one’s futility in any situation to the extent that I do not participate is by default a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
Maybe you’ve had days like these, too. Maybe you’ve had a lot of them. Regardless, you know what they feel like and you probably also know the impact they have on your performance—and especially on the performance of those around you.
Fortunately, I was able to do a nifty A/B experiment on myself around this issue. I was a Product Owner on a very cool 150-person project: Agile all the way; greenfield work; no legacy code; generous budget; and a really good social cause, too. Very cool. But it was also very challenging. I won’t go into the details suffice it to say that we experienced, sometimes in huge doses of our own design, all the typical challenges that most Agile projects face—and then some.
The product was officially released in March and we did make the deadline. Many people worked hard to negotiate scope with our stakeholders and many others worked even harder to deliver on what was eventually agreed to. But it was a tough slog for us all and the end result didn’t really seem satisfying to anyone.
A few days later, I gave a month’s notice that I was leaving. This was the project I came to work on, and aside from maintenance and mop up, there wasn’t really anything left for me to do. I was actually chosen to PO an entirely new project during my last 30 days.
So here’s the experiment: During the first 17 months of my engagement, how fully did I bring myself to work each day? And how did this compare with the last month of my engagement?
There was much for me to enjoy during the entirety of my employ. But I absolutely loved my last 30 days. People kept asking me, “Dude, why are you working so much when you’re about to leave?” Truth was, I didn’t really know. I was just having a really good time.
With a few month’s distance from the project, I know the difference now: when I had a job I thought I might want to keep and even advance in, I held back, ruminated over problems of corporate calculus, and performed more poorly as a result; when I had a job I knew I couldn’t lose (because I had already announced my leaving), I brought my whole self to work each day and performed much more effectively. Not only did I make a better contribution to my team but I did a lot for other teams, too. And I really did enjoy myself almost every minute.
Writing this, I’m reminded of a quote that I think we all know at least a little of: “You’ve gotta’ dance like there’s nobody watching. Love like you’ll never be hurt. Sing like there’s nobody listening. And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
Corny, sure. But most true things are.
When I “had” my job, there was always some silly chess match going on in my head, some sense of relative advantage or disadvantage, of gaining position or losing material, of the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, and most certainly more than the occasional dollop of flat out fear. Looking back, it was probably the fear, the lack of safety I felt, that sat at the root of any dissatisfaction or withholding I may have rationalized at the expense of my team members, my stakeholders, and my employer.
I reckon I’m not alone in this. There has been, in every company where I’ve worked other than the ones I’ve run myself, some not insignificant element of trepidation for me. This isn’t to say that I haven’t had my close calls, near-bankrupt moments, deal-killing incompetence, or general doubts about my own organizations. I have. But I’ve had a lot more control in my own organizations, so I’ve always felt a lot safer. I think that’s why, ultimately, I tend toward entrepreneurism. Some people think I’m a risk taker. I think the exact opposite is true.
Working in my own company once again, I try to make every day a “Take Yourself to Work Day”. After all, if I don’t show up fully, the work doesn’t get fully done. And, historically, all the really great work I’ve done in my life has been for companies I either owned or ones that I have at least been a co-founder or executive of. Even though all of those companies have had far fewer resources, a decidedly un-Google-like lack of luxury, and far less prestige than any corporate situation I’ve been in, my work has been better and so has my work satisfaction.
I had a couple of great teams back on my last job. What, I wonder, could we have achieved had we all taken our whole selves to work each day? The difference in myself between a moderately fearful first 17 months and a totally fearless last 30 days was dramatic both in what I contributed and how I felt. Multiply that by an entire scrum team and I think our achievements would have been significantly greater than they were. Multiply by 150 and my hunch is that we could have delivered everything our stakeholders wanted and much they would never have imagined and would have been thrilled to receive.
But I know that there was a fair amount of fear around the work we were doing, and when we weren’t afraid, we were often confused or at best ambivalent about which path to take. What we needed was a long unbroken string of “Take Yourself to Work” days.
I realize now that bringing all of who I am to work every day makes all the difference in the world. I don’t always do it. But I always know that it matters. And when I work with others, it seems to matter even more. So now I’m thinking that maybe there’s one more line to add to that corny old quote: “Work like you’ll never get fired.”
Steve Peha is a learning strategist and product developer with a keen interest in the creation of high-performing teams and organizational cultures that encourage their development and support their growth. He is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, a learning consultancy in Chapel Hill, NC. He has two dogs, one wife, and zero reluctance to throw himself fully into his work.