Are you truly the same person at work as you are at home? For many of us, work means leaving part of our personality at the front door. But why do we do this? And how could it be affecting our experience of work?
Before we answer these questions, it’s important to understand what we actually mean when we talk about being authentic.
What does it mean to be authentic at work?
Authentic: of undisputed origin and not a copy; original.
Let’s be clear, being authentic isn’t a free pass to say or do whatever you want. Regardless of who you are, you should always aim to be professional, responsible, reliable, honest and kind – these are the baseline expectations of any person whether in or out of work.
Everything on top of that – your personality, opinions, passions and values – is what makes you who you are. Being authentic simply means being true to yourself.
So if you are an outgoing extrovert, be an outgoing extrovert. Conversely, if you are quiet, be quiet. Anything else would be inauthentic, and will likely lead to you feeling miserable in the long term.
Here are some of the things we do in the workplace that stop us from being our authentic selves:
- Compromising our core values or beliefs
- Doing or saying things we don’t want to or believe in
- Hiding parts of our personalities in order to fit in
- Saying what we think others want to hear, rather than what we actually think
- Not trusting our own judgement, abilities and experience
If some of these things ring true, perhaps it’s time to ask why we do this.
In many ways, presenting a ‘safe’ version of ourselves at work is understandable. Work is a professional environment where people’s opinions matter, and it can feel like our behaviour and actions are constantly being judged and assessed.
This starts as early as the interview stage, which can feel more like a performance than anything natural. We often go into interviews thinking ‘what are they looking for?’ not ‘this is who I am.’ This continues once we start the job when we are on high alert and eager to live up to our new employer’s expectations.
Rightly or wrongly, we assume that the person we are expected to be is different to the person we are, so we adapt in order to fit in. Once this mind-set is established, it is very difficult to shift.
This paints a rather old-fashioned picture of work, where employees are expected to behave more like robots than individuals. We assume that to get ahead, it’s best to agree with what others have to say rather than speaking our minds.
Work is also a social environment, and it can sometimes feel necessary to conform to the group in order to fit in. This is especially true when starting a new job.
Joining a close-knit group can be a daunting experience, and there can be a lot of pressure to live up to their expectations. This again causes a rift between who we think our colleagues want us to be and who we really are.
As a result, we often tone down certain parts of our character and amplify others. This can lead to us doing and saying things we don’t necessarily want to, compromising our own personal values and beliefs to please others.
This combination of professional and social expectations can lead us to feel that it is safer to fit in than to be ourselves, which can have huge repercussions not only for our personal happiness and wellbeing but also for the quality of our work.
The importance of being authentic
Pretending to be someone you are not can be tiring at the best of times, but doing it eight hours a day is full-on exhausting.
In the long term, it can really take its toll and results in an unhealthy view of work as something separate to real life. But this daily mask-wearing is not only psychologically damaging, it also hinders creativity and prevents us from doing our best work.
Being authentic means bringing your full self to work each day – your own unique personality, opinions, ideas and ways of working. This allows you to put your whole self into your work, unleashing a wave of energy and motivation that was previously held back.
Having the freedom to speak your mind, rather than simply going along with what others say, is an essential part of the creative process. But for this to work, organisations must create a culture where alternative opinions are heard, accepted and valued.
This is backed up by a 2015 Google study, which found that psychological safety – or the shared belief that anyone can speak their mind without fear of being punished or humiliated – is one of the most important factors in creating a great team.
So an authentic workplace is not only a happier and healthier place, but a more vibrant, creative and productive one.
Some thoughts for employees
Dropping your work persona for the real you can be strangely challenging, especially if you have programmed yourself to see work as a place where conformity is better than individuality. Here are some key points to help you and your colleagues build a truly authentic workplace:
- Don’t be afraid to speak up, even if most people think differently – progress is dependent on people thinking outside the box.
- Understand that your voice is valued and that you bring your very own take on things that is unique to you. Your experiences and skills are also unique, so trust them.
- Likewise, respect other people’s opinions, personalities and ways of working.
- Remember that the expectations of you as an employee go beyond your personality – professionalism, honesty, trustworthiness and kindness are all essential, regardless of who you are.
- Be wary of destructive gossip. What seems like good fun can tip over into something toxic. This is about trust and respect – nobody wants to work in an environment where they will be scrutinised the moment they leave the room.
- Remember there’s no right or wrong personality type. An authentic workplace means the freedom to be who you are, whether quiet or outgoing. Being authentic also means having the freedom to say no to things that you don’t want to do and embrace the things you do.