What does it really mean to be authentic in the workplace? Authenticity is the new buzzword but it is not just a fad. Whether you are reading the Harvard Business Review or Forbes, there is growing acceptance that authenticity in the workplace a good thing because it fosters creativity, innovation and a more engaged workforce. And there are strong links between authenticity and well-being in the workplace.
Being authentic means showing more of your real self to the workplace. Despite all of the buzz, people still struggle with what it means to be authentic and bring their “real selves” to work.
The power of culture in the workplace
Culture in a workplace can be a powerful invisible force about what it means to “fit in.” You can feel the culture of a workplace simply by noticing the attire of the employees, how people talk, and how meetings are run.
Early on in my career, I did what was necessary to fit in to the culture of the workplace. I did not want to stand out. So I conformed to how I perceived that workplace to operate. And then I did that in law school (there was a strong culture of being aggressively ambitious) and later on in the nonprofit sector (where there I found a culture of working hard until the job gets done).
Only recently did I start to ask myself whether it was time for me to embrace authenticity. But putting it into practice in face of cultural norms in the workplace wasn’t so easy as I thought.
The challenge with being authentic at work
I work with clients every day that struggle with authenticity at work – especially women. My clients come to me asking whether there is a way to feel happier at work. They don’t want to put on a persona that isn’t really them but they also feel they need to act in a certain way in order to be respected. They may want to have a genuine conversation with someone – maybe their boss or maybe their staff – but worry it will reflect negatively on them.
Or maybe they have already tried to be authentic but felt it actually hurt them more than it helped. Perhaps they tried to speak up but had their opinions ignored. Or they showed some vulnerability and felt others misunderstood them.
Putting authenticity into practice
Putting authenticity into practice isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Sure, the experts say we need to bring more of our authentic selves because we’ll feel happier. But there are limits to what we can do in the workplace culture. How can we really know what works best? In the end, bringing our authentic selves to work does not mean taking a cookie-cutter approach. There are not “steps” to bring the real you to work because it is highly personal and dependent on what you want. And let’s be frank. It also depends on the workplace. One workplace will embrace authenticity while another demands conformity.
The good news is because there is no one-sized-fits-all approach to authenticity, you can create your own brand that works for you. If you are wanting to bring more of your authentic self to the workplace, here are some questions to create your own personal brand.
- What part of you are you covering? When someone conceals a part of themselves to seem more a part of their surroundings, it is called “covering.” Sociologists coined the term to explain when individuals with stigmatized identities work hard to keep that from being shown. People can attempt to cover their appearance, affiliation, or association. But “covering” can apply to just about anything: being a working parent, being young, not having a degree, not having “enough” experience. Being mindful of what you are covering helps you know what you aren’t sharing.
- What part of the ‘real you’ do you want to bring to the workplace? While authenticity is essentially about bringing your true self to work, that is overly simplistic. Saying anything that pops into your head could get you fired. Wearing whatever you want to wear may violate the dress code. Doing what “feels right” to you can mean a warning from your boss. Clearly, there is a point where what you may do at home isn’t welcome at work. As a starting point, think about what part of your real self you’d like to share more of at work. What first step could you take to be more of a ‘real’ you at work?
- How could you bring authenticity to your relationships in the workplace? It is the relationships we have with other people that drive how we act at work. And we are sometimes more or less authentic depending on the person. Think more specifically about how you want to interact with individual people depending on our relationship. Could you approach certain people differently than you have before? For example, if you are a manager, could you be more genuine with your staff? The other person may or may not respond as you hope but remember that sometimes you need to keep bringing that authentic self to work over and over again before it starts to feel more comfortable.
- How could you listen in order to be more authentic? We often view the authenticity revolution in terms of how we act and what we bring to work. But because authenticity is partly about what we bring to relationships, learning more about others help paves more of a path to authenticity. Ask questions about another person and their lives. Learn more about their authentic self and be in a stronger place from which to build an authentic relationship.
- How could being vulnerable work for you? For many people, being vulnerable is about the last thing you want to bring to the workplace! And yet, being vulnerable can be the best way to be more authentic. So many of us in the workplace bring a facade to exude total confidence in all we do acting as if we can do anything. It is sometimes the masks we put on that keep people away. Sharing what makes us vulnerable about can make us more real and approachable. Does being vulnerable mean you can’t be confident? Not at all. Being vulnerable can mean acknowledging you don’t have all of the answers or telling someone you’d like to better understand their concerns. It can mean you share a bit more about your personal life to help others know you are a human being. It can mean asking for help. Think about what being vulnerable means to you.
Once you answer these questions, you will be ready to take a step to building your own brand of authenticity at work. At first, take small steps testing along the way to see what feels right for you. You will inevitably focus more on how people perceive your more authentic self and that is natural. Being sensitive to others isn’t a bad thing and can help you navigate what feels right to you. But worry less about how others feel about your brand of authenticity. Sometimes it takes time for others to see you are committed to bringing your real self to work and they will often adapt. But check in with yourself about how you feel. If you feel more free sharing more of who you are, you are likely on the right track.