Being Authentic at Work, Part 1 of 3

Is it possible to be fully authentic at work? That question came up recently in a conversation with a vibrant and lighthearted friend who is adapting to a serious and reserved workplace. A few years ago, my answer to that question would have been an emphatic “No,” but it was exactly that attitude that led, at least in part, to a near burnout. I’ve since come to realize that the question of whether we can be authentic at work is complicated and sensitive, with no easy answers. Over the next several blogs, I’ll be exploring this question, starting today with what we can do as individuals to bring more of our full selves to work. In future blogs, I’ll be looking at how and when we need to adapt, and what organizations can do to create a culture that is more conducive to authenticity.

But first, why do so many of us find it so hard to be fully ourselves at work? Perhaps we’ve learned or created definitions of what it means to be “professional,” or maybe being too open makes us feel vulnerable in an environment where the strong succeed. Whatever the reason, when our work persona starts to significantly deviate from our outside-work persona, tension is created, and that causes stress – the bigger the gap between the two personae, the greater the stress. When people at work like and respect our work persona, it can feel uncomfortable if that persona is too different from our true selves. Worse, it can lead to a lack of trust, as we feel that others appreciate a false, or at least incomplete, version of ourselves.

When my work persona – strong, independent career woman – bumped up against some new roles in my personal life – partner, mother, step-mother, my stress levels skyrocketed and I nearly burnt out. There are many reasons I didn’t feel comfortable bringing more of myself to work (I will touch on those in future blogs), but in retrospect, I realize that there are things I could have done to alleviate the tension between my multiple roles. Here are two simple things we can do to start to break down the division between our work and outside-work personae:

• Get to know people on a more personal level. Invite a couple colleagues a week for coffee and share some details from your personal life, like a hobby or a favourite activity. Not only can making a personal connection help you feel more authentic, it may even increase your engagement. Gallup has been telling us for years that one of the key factors in engagement is having a friend at work.

• Take a moment at the end of each work day to ask yourself what you are proudest of. It could be something incredibly small – maybe you held the door open for a stranger whose hands were full – but this can help you tap into the ways in which your values show up at work. And feeling authentic starts with being able to live our deepest values in all aspects of our lives.

I’d love to hear from readers on this topic. What do you do to live your values and bring your authentic self to work?