Six Sigma and more: Hiding who we are

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn addresses the ways in which employees cover up aspects of their lives in order to get ahead in the workplace, and assesses the damage that ensues from this practice.

My wife, Carole, recently sent me a paper she found on the internet. The paper is “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” written and updated on December 6 by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith. The article struck a chord with me.

This article reminded me of some of the explicit underlying assumptions in the book we wrote last year. The article also uplifted for me some assumptions that we made that I, at least, was unconscious of when we wrote the book, The Transformative Workplace. The article also reminded me of an aim that I set for every course I teach about how my students and I will be together. I state it as an intention: “To create and nurture a learning community that celebrates our diversity, embraces our unity, and honors the wisdom and knowledge every one of us brings.” We so often find our diversity and the diversity of others a threat rather than a cause for celebration. For me, this is an intention worth reminding myself of.

Yoshino and Smith’s article used a survey of a cross-section of more than 3,000 people to explore the depth of a problem they term “covering up.” The article showed that most people cover up some aspect of themselves. In the workplace, they even found that 45 percent of straight white men cover some aspect of themselves. They also found that more than three quarters of the respondents considered that covering up was important to their long-term professional advancement and that more than half of the respondents said that covering something up affected their sense of opportunities available to them.

It is not surprising, then, that the same article found that more than half of the respondents thought that the need to cover up was detrimental to their personal sense of self, and about half of those same respondents had lost a sense of commitment to the organization in which they worked because of the need they felt to cover up.

My personal conclusion from the article is that covering up causes people to have a declining sense of self and to lose their sense of commitment to their organization. These are not results we wish for in the places we work.

As I further reflect on this phenomenon, I remember an incident many years ago when I was still at Ford. I shared with my boss that I was having trouble keeping my first marriage together. At my next annual performance review, my usually stellar rating was knocked down a notch, because my personal marital problems were causing my workplace performance to decline. Of course, my boss never discussed a performance problem with me prior to the evaluation.

Another incident occurred when I was being diagnosed for cancer nearly 20 years ago. A friend told me very emphatically that I should tell no one at work about the situation because it would make me look weak and vulnerable. This was a rule that he thought held for anyone. I was running a small manufacturing plant in Michigan at the time. Because the testing and possible treatment I would be undergoing would take me away from being on site, I told the company owner about the situation. I was fired shortly thereafter. When I asked the cause of the firing, the owner would give me no reason. I still don’t know why I was fired, but Michigan is an “at-will” employment state that, simply put, allows employers to terminate employees at any time, for any legal reason, or for no reason at all. It turns out that all states recognize “at-will” employment, but some have exceptions to it. That’s just another reason for covering up.

My final observation involves our tendency to see other individuals and groups in the workplace as different from ourselves. They may have different goals, different access to resources, different political views, different taste in clothes, different accents, or any other of a myriad of ways to be different. Many of those differences cause us to distrust or discount those who are different. That distrust and discounting makes it more difficult to work together for the good of the organization and difficult to affirm those who seem different.

So let’s try to uncover. Let’s uncover ourselves a bit and let’s encourage others in our workplace to uncover, too. It’s good for us, it’s good for our organizations, and it’s good for Six Sigma when we all can bring more of ourselves to the workplace. It’s a little risky to be sure, but if being more of ourselves threatens our workplaces, maybe those workplaces don’t deserve us.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.