What makes someone happy at work? It’s a question corporations, recruiters, social scientists, and employees themselves grapple with every. single. day. And sure, there are a lot of different factors, but the research overwhelmingly points to one single fact: to be happy at work you have to have an environment where you feel like you can be yourself.

That doesn’t mean birthday cakes and Hawaiian shirt days, or other old-school nods to self-expression, but a true openness to learning who your coworkers are, not just their title at the office. This includes destigmatizing mental illness, embracing quirks, and welcoming neurodiversity. The process is called emotional networking, and it’s a powerful tool in your professional arsenal.

The theoretical underpinnings of emotional networking lie in something called “social identity theory.” Essentially, your attachment to a group dictates how you show up and self-identify in order to be a part of the group. In a workplace with a supportive culture, that can help you be real and authentic; in a workplace with a toxic culture, it can mean a lot of pressure to conform to norms that may not feel right. Social scientists confirmed this hunch by looking at over 60 studies on mental health in the workplace.

Experts like Katy Goshtasbi, an attorney and author, have started specializing in corporate culture and teaching employees to bring their whole self to work. It’s not just a lot of buzzwords and BS. “Emotional networking is the ability to have empathy and see others as humans who have a life outside of your current interactions. This allows you to interact from a more genuine place,” Goshtasbi says. “Bifurcating who we are leaves us feeling lost and inauthentic. The result: we can’t be as effective at work.”

The fundamental question, “Who am I”? is a personal question, but it has serious repercussions for productivity and morale. So why is this worth addressing in your workplace?

#1 Emotional Networking Promotes Happiness

“Employees tell me all the time that they are “isolated” despite social media and technology.  They’re isolated because they can’t be authentic; they feel like they’re a fraud at work,” says Goshtasbi. “Being yourself and sharing from a real place of “this is me” allows you to be free and real at work, which has to promote a happier person in each of us.” And, being open starts the domino affect where others do the same. Eventually things people try to hide about themselves don’t seem like such a big deal.

#2 Emotional Networking Supports Productivity

By just being yourself, a.k.a. letting it all hang out, you spend less time and energy essentially putting on an act. Instead you can funnel your energy into being more productive at work. “An employee who feels safe enough to come out and say he is gay and shares his life openly on a daily basis (i.e. what he/she did over the weekend, etc.) is not so absorbed in hiding his secret and pretending, says Goshtasbi. “So now he can focus on his actual work and be more productive.” A 2009 study looking at the consequences of coming out of the closet supports this theory, finding that selective disclosure of one’s sexual identity creates opportunities to find social support and limits stigmatization.

#3 Emotional Networking Helps You Connect With Colleagues

Rather than trying to hide something, whether it’s a fear of elevators or anxiety over public speaking, talking about it with colleagues makes you human, and potentially offers a bonding experience. When you overcome some of the day-to-day challenges, it also lets your team and your managers know what a victory it is for you. This can be an inspiration or even a point of admiration.

#4 Emotional Networking Promotes Diversity

A 2018 report from corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that diverse workplaces are not just happier–they’re more profitable. That’s a strong incentive for companies to cultivate diverse workplaces, but many still fail to attract unique candidates. This is because they haven’t created an atmosphere where people who might be different feel comfortable. To do this requires real leadership from senior management, who set the tone. “If I’m real and being myself, you feel safer doing the same, thereby having permission indirectly to be yourself,” says Goshtasbi.

#5 Emotional Networking Decreases Stigma

Common stigmas that work against employees in the workplace include mental and physical health, weight, sex, and race. While the specific steps to accommodate those unique needs may be different, the common factor is identifying others as humans (by having empathy). The less people feel ashamed about their differences, the more open they are. It’s almost like stigma kryptonite.

If you’re open to emotional networking in your workplace, you may be wondering the best way to give others permission to open up. Goshtasbi’s answer? Make small, daily adjustments to your interactions that help normalize this change over time. When you start a meeting, for example, don’t “leap directly into the substantive topic of the meeting, but rather share a bit about yourself personally and allow others in the meeting to do so, too. Seeing each other’s human side helps the meetings go more smoothly,” explains Goshtasbi.

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Last Updated: Mar 2, 2020