Being Authentic at Work, Part 2 of 3

In my last blog, I asked the question of whether it’s possible to be fully authentic at work. That blog considered things we can do individually to bring more of our full selves to work to reduce the stress associated with having two identities, work and outside work, that can drift ever farther apart. Today I’d like to look at the ways in which we need to adapt to our organizations and to our direct managers.

When my own work and outside work personae grew too divergent and I nearly burnt out, I was working in an environment that had a relatively narrow definition of success and what an “ideal worker” was; I call this a “conforming” environment. I had fit the ideal worker definition quite neatly in my early years with the company, but as new roles emerged in my life, maintaining that image at work became more difficult and stressful. After much soul searching and weighing my priorities around ambition and care, I chose to reduce my work hours, effectively narrowing the gap between my identities by acknowledging more of my outside work persona in my work life. The stress of maintaining two identities diminished, but so did my career prospects, which was a cost I accepted with open eyes.

What I learned from this experience is that the extent to which we can be authentic depends in large part on how conforming our work environment is and on our own, very personal, assessment of our priorities and values. The extent to which we can bring more of our full selves to work depends on many considerations. Here are a few:

• How open is your work environment to different paths to success? In my case, acknowledging my care responsibilities conflicted with the company’s definition of an ideal worker. The less conforming your environment, the more authentic you can be without negative consequences.

• What are your own priorities? While I have always been very career oriented, I recognized that my care responsibilities were temporary. Had I been very attached to building a career in my former organization, I may have chosen differently.

• How open is your immediate supervisor? My supervisor trusted me to do my job regardless of my schedule and was willing to accommodate my new hours. A supervisor who is unwilling or unable to broaden the definition of “ideal worker” will limit our ability to be authentic.

• Do you have a niche skill? While my reduction in work hours had an impact on my career prospects, the same was not the case for my colleagues with special skills. In an insurance company, for example, actuarial skills are critical, so people who possess those skills can create more flexibility for themselves regardless of how conforming their environment is. We can all develop niche skills, by noticing what our organizations need and taking courses and getting on projects to develop those skills.

Being more fully ourselves in all areas of our life can help us feel more engaged in everything that we do, while compartmentalizing our lives can sometimes lead to stress. But does more authenticity benefit organizations? My next blog will consider this question and look at ways organizations can create cultures that are more authentic.