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Dan recently opened up on LinkedIn with a post about “coming out” in the workplace and how essential it is for people to feel they can be their authentic selves at work.
Here, Dan kindly shares his personal story and perspective on what it means for leaders and organisations to create a culture of authenticity and psychological safety.
I’ve always been me. So that’s all I knew.
I guess, deep down I realised as a teenager that I was gay, although I would have been completely scared to use those words. I used to tell myself that I might be attracted to guys, but that I just hadn’t found the right girl. And when that happened, it would be fine. I was very conscious of wanting to be a “normal” teenager and wanting to please my parents.
There’s a book called The Best Little Boy in the World by Andrew Tobias which talks about growing up gay in a straight world. It is only one person’s experience — and written at a different time — but I think the author Andy captures how, when we feel different (in his and my case being gay), we strive to impress on any or all other metrics to compensate. Whether it’s through excelling at school or at sports, we are trying to find validation by “checking all the boxes”.
I wasn’t particularly good at sports (!) but I think I had a bit of that about me — as a teenager I buried myself in academics, sports and extracurricular activities — at least partly so I could avoid dealing with my bigger insecurity. Suffice to say, it didn’t work! It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which straw broke the camel’s back, but I ended up having a huge realisation sitting at home one Sunday afternoon at 22 years old that I was gay and I wasn’t going to change it, no matter how hard I tried. That was the first time I had truly acknowledged it to myself — I suddenly burst into tears, ran over to my sister’s apartment nearby, gave her a big hug and told her. By the end of the night I had told my parents — and over the coming months — my best friends and wider network. In hindsight, I was way over-worried and even apologetic, but they were fantastic; quickly reassuring me I (obviously) had nothing to worry about or apologise for.
After that, I was incredibly happy — it was the summer that I finished Uni and I had a gap year which allowed me to escape out of a relatively small ecosystem in Dublin and not worry about who I had or hadn’t told. That year was an incredible growth year for me personally.
However, even after that — and I guess this maybe shows how you ‘never stop’ coming out — I came back home to start my career and thought “that’s my personal life, I need to keep this out of work”. I was about to join a very serious consulting firm in London, where I thought people might have preconceptions, they might judge me, which might hamper my progress or relationships with clients. It didn’t last long. I think I was successful in not mentioning it for about three weeks and then realised how unsustainable that was. Everyone was completely supportive, without making a particularly big deal out of it. I definitely needed the acceptance, but I was also perfectly happy to move on once I’d told people and didn’t need to talk about it forever. We’re all different on that front, but for me, it was the combination of acceptance, care and appropriate nonchalance that I found really helpful.
I also had a personal mentor, who I would have been nervous about telling, but after nine months, I went into his office, told him, and he was great about it. I think I’m a reasonably logical and confident person, but it took several reactionary affirmations to be like, “okay, kid, you need to stop worrying about this so much”.
As I mentioned, even after all that, every gay person nearly always has a decision to make on whether to come out when they meet a new person. It’s like “Am I doing this now or am I leaving that one on the side?” I’m not sure it ever goes away completely, but it has definitely gotten easier. At least in western society, these last 10 years have seen such monumental change for LGBTQ rights and acceptance. It’s staggering how quickly it’s happened versus other topics. It’s amazing to see Gen Z people nowadays and how comfortable and confident they are in being themselves, and yet, there’s still so much work to do when you look around the world.
“Suddenly this thing you had bottled up for so long is in the newspapers”
A big catalyst for me was Ireland having a gay marriage referendum in 2015. At that point, only a couple of countries had legalised gay marriage, but Ireland was the first to do it by popular vote. It was a very scary, exciting and exhilarating time. Suddenly this thing that you had bottled up for so long is in the newspapers and radio — everyone is about to vote on your human rights and they all have an opinion — from the taxi driver to your client, to your teammates.
At that point, I was out to my friends and colleagues but it was never something I would’ve shared ‘publicly’. I was working a lot in London at the time so I wasn’t able to canvas actively, but I did feel if I could influence just a couple of voters, I should probably be more open. My version of that wasn’t particularly brave — a Facebook post — but it felt very scary at the time of writing. I guess the referendum forced me into speaking publicly about who I was a little bit earlier than I otherwise would have been ready for, and accelerated my own self-acceptance.
It was an amazing couple of months in Ireland… I’ll never forget. The country voted overwhelmingly “Yes”, which was a phenomenally happy moment.
I think then, over the last few years, as I’ve got more experience, moved to the States, had leadership roles, I’ve begun to realise both how fortunate I am relatively and (without sounding too grandiose) that there’s a responsibility to pay it forward. I want to continue to make this easier for future generations.
“For me, authenticity is realising that you shouldn’t have to put a filter on who you are.”
It doesn’t mean having no filter, because we’re always constantly figuring out “should we talk about this? Is this the right time? Does this person care etc?” But I think it comes down to something fundamental of whether you need a filter on who you are as a person. It’s not just an LGBTQ thing, it’s anything that I think society deems as “different” and where we build up our version of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or lack of confidence. So for me, authenticity is realising that you shouldn’t have to put a filter on who you are. You don’t necessarily need to run around telling everyone you’re gay all the time, but if people are talking about their weekends and their wives or girlfriends or boyfriends or husbands etc — and you otherwise would chip in — then you just contribute to that in a normal way.
By doing that, maybe there’s someone in the same room or someone in the company, who has their own version of what you’ve said, and they feel a little less hesitant in talking about it.
Fortunately, being in a leadership role allows you to do that. But I also think there could easily be a younger person who is more confident and could help their boss come out if they just talked about it normally. So I think leadership roles give you an extra level of responsibility, but by no means is it the only prism that matters. I think, if you feel (rightly) that you shouldn’t have anything to be ashamed about, then the more you can talk about that in a natural way, it will have a positive impact, even for people you haven’t considered.
Honestly, in my LinkedIn post, I thought it was a good thing to do, but who actively knows all the people they’re connected to? I just thought, well, this is pretty normal in 2021, and this might be a bit gratuitous, especially being in New York where it’s so liberal. But that’s also a privileged position to have. I guess I assumed that in my world, most people are positive and wouldn’t really care whether I’m gay or straight. But a bunch of people reached out to me privately to tell me my post was helpful, so it’s a good reminder not to be complacent. Not everyone needs to hear your story every day of the week, but — to go back to your question — it’s important to keep reminding people to be themselves. We want people to be the best version of themselves and do great work. That means you, not someone else.
It’s been proven that people perform better when they’re in psychologically safe teams. And, one of the key ingredients to psychological safety, is the ability to authentically be yourself. If you imagine a mathematical chart, how much energy does someone have at the beginning of the day when they’re coming to work… then if they’re busy worrying, or feeling anxious about not being able to be themselves, how much energy are they wasting on that anxiety and worry? They then have less energy for being brilliant and making a great contribution. So, not only is this right on a moral level, but even if you’re putting on your logical and hard-nosed hat, this makes business sense.
Based on my personal experience? I think it’s probably not a bad place to start with yourself. People look to leaders to role model behaviours and culture. You may not be gay (for example), but you probably have something unusual about yourself, something that you might not normally share. I think we are all vulnerable in different ways. And I think when we allow ourselves to show that, other people feel more comfortable sharing it too. You create a more human connection, and you get a lot closer to psychological safety.
So, I think starting there, normalising it and normalising when other people in your organisation do it is a good place to start and easy to do if you’re brave enough.
To go further, and to go back to the logical hard-nosed business hat, if you’re not doing this in 2021, you’re probably in trouble. This is what people — rightly — expect now. They want to be themselves at work and to have an environment that is psychologically safe.
In the current war for talent, you need to be actively thinking about inclusive behaviour. More broadly there’s a whole piece of research on psychological safety and exercises that teams can use. For example, you can ask, “what was the mistake that we made as a team?” “What did we learn from it?” “How do we do this next time?” as opposed to “we made a mistake, whatever”. That’s the difference between keeping accountability and not making the same mistake twice. That’s something that I do with my teams because anyone who wants to innovate, win, be creative and figure out the next big thing is going to make a tonne of mistakes along the way. As a leader, you want to encourage the right kind of failure and normalise it so that people stay innovative.
I’m not an expert, but I think in some ways, it’s obvious that what we see affects how we think. For the less visible things, in a situation where someone doesn’t feel comfortable or feels disadvantaged, they have the ability not to share. Whereas for the more visible things like gender or race, you don’t have that choice, which creates a different dynamic.
I don’t think that’s the main point though. When companies talk about diversity, inclusion, or authenticity, they should focus on the whole person, and want that whole person to be part of the team, if they choose to. As an organisation, we’ve decided we want to work with you, no one else, and that means all of you. So I think if you start in a “bottom-up” way to this topic (as opposed to “top-down”), then it should be clear.
We need to create examples, opportunities and stories, (of which some will be about gender, sexual orientation or disability) centred around the whole person, and that person should feel that, whatever they’re carrying, the company cares and wants them to be themselves. I think some organisations have looked at diversity more top-down, and they see the things they can measure. Measurement is important because it keeps people accountable so that people are not just paying lip service. But I think the core philosophy and value of this should be focused on the individual person and whoever you are, bringing that best self to work, because that’s really the only prism through which you can understand or capture the complexity that we all bring to these things.
As leaders, we do not want a team if everyone is the same in how they think, their experience, introverts or extroverts, whether they’re problem solvers or they’re deep analytical thinkers. There’s a reason we chose you. You are different to that other person and we like that person too — there’s a complementary set of strengths and experiences here.
As a final note, I’m also conscious of the fact that our perspective here is very western-centric. Some of these things can be very easy for me to say, and I know that lots of people aren’t able to talk so openly in the world as it is. Therefore, as leaders, we arguably have even more responsibility to ensure that our teams are able to be themselves without judgement.
Thank you so much to Dan for sharing his personal perspectives on such an important topic.
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