Should You Be Your Authentic Self at Work?
Feel engaged, contribute more and reach your professional potential
By Patricia Thompson
When I began my career as a management consultant, I was reluctant to be authentic. As a Black female who had just finished grad school, I was all too aware of potential negative stereotypes that others might have about me based on my age, gender, and race. As a result, I made it my mission to come across as pulled together, polished, and serious at all times.
To prevent any concerns about how knowledgeable I was, I led with my intelligence. At the same time, I downplayed my fun-loving side, lest others think of me as immature or unprofessional. To make sure that my colleagues didn’t perceive me as overly sensitive or “angry,” I frequently bit my tongue in response to comments that ranged from a little inappropriate to blatantly offensive.
Due to my life experience and training as a psychologist, I was very attuned to subtle interpersonal dynamics. I used these observations to be chameleon-like in adapting to the people around me during meetings. I avoided conflict, and made sure to keep any ideas that might have gone against the grain to myself. I was also very conservative about talking about my private life because I didn’t know if I, as a single female, would be perceived to be too different from my older, married peers.
And, as a classic example to show just how focused I was on managing my impression, I even made sure my phone case, portfolio, and other accessories were a neutral black (although I would have preferred brighter colors) to avoid calling undue attention to myself. Sad, but true.
Now, you may be thinking that putting on a positive front and striving to be professional is entirely appropriate for an eager up-and-comer. I absolutely agree with this. After all, you’re obviously going to behave differently at work than you would at a casual cookout with your best friends from college. I’m not suggesting by any means that you should “let it all hang out” and ignore common workplace standards of behavior.
However, by being hyper-focused on managing my impression, I experienced several negative outcomes.
First of all, constantly monitoring and muting myself took up a lot of mental and emotional energy. Every time I concealed my true opinions, I felt like I was stifling a part of myself. Furthermore, it often made me appear less valuable to my boss and colleagues. I can’t count the number of times I kept an idea to myself out of self-doubt, only to have someone else say something similar a few minutes later, and receive praise from the group for such an insightful contribution.
At the same time, while I was contorting myself to make others comfortable, the irony was that my lack of authenticity had a negative effect on relationships with peers and colleagues. Although I was seen as smart, capable, and competent, I was also seen as hard to get close to and difficult to read. As a result, by not being authentic, I was actually making myself more likely to be perceived as a member of an outgroup, due to the invisible boundaries I had erected.
Eventually, I decided that my lack of authenticity was more trouble than it was worth. It was mentally taxing, and it felt like too much of a self-betrayal. So, I started to share more of myself at work. And, much to my surprise, it actually enhanced my effectiveness.
Over the years, I have worked with numerous individuals who have struggled with expressing their true selves at work. I’ve seen this dynamic frequently from members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as members of ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, or women. Experience has taught them that they do not have the same leeway to make mistakes as their non-minority peers. Although a mistake may be seen as a momentary lapse for someone else, they fear that if they make a misstep, it will be perceived as a reflection of their lack of ability.
Interestingly, however, I’ve also heard these concerns expressed from non-minority individuals. For example, I once worked with a white male who experienced a lot of anxiety at work because he felt that he could not be his true self in his dealings with others. As someone who beat himself up for the slightest error, he assumed others viewed him in the same harsh manner. As a result, when others challenged an opinion he offered, he would quickly retreat, so as not to upset his audience or create any sort of conflict.
Still, similar to my own experience, I’ve consistently found that my clients have gained much more than they have lost by taking the risk to be more authentic.
When they take some tentative steps to share more of themselves with others and they find out that it’s virtually a non-issue, it gives them a greater sense of freedom and fluidity, and less stress. It boosts their confidence, increases their fulfillment on the job, and increases their effectiveness as leaders. By voicing their opinions more consistently, they also enhance the level of respect others have for them because they’re making more of a contribution to important dialogues.
Moreover, by opening up, they generally experience deeper relationships with those around them. In her research, social psychologist Barbara Frederickson has found that disclosing information about oneself can potentially contribute to a greater sense of connection. When you take the interpersonal risk to share something about yourself with someone, it signals a mutual understanding of trust. Given that the relationships one builds are critical for being able to lead, influence, and motivate others effectively, showing some vulnerability can actually enhance your effectiveness.
If you’ve been self-monitoring for a long time, it might feel a little scary to put yourself out there. After all, any time you change a behavior, you are venturing into the unknown. So, start small by keeping track of times at which you stifle yourself.
Note them in a journal and look for themes. Are there certain topics about which you are less inclined to give your true opinions? Are there rational reasons for this? Have you seen others reprimanded for expressing their thoughts on a particular topic? Or, are you being overly cautious? Strive to be as objective as possible, separating yourself from the emotions of the situation and approaching the exercise as an impartial observer.
After engaging in this exercise, some individuals with whom I have worked have determined that their concerns are indeed well founded, and that, unfortunately, their organization is not accepting. Some may have observed that they were employed in a workplace that had a “good old boy” mentality in which diverse backgrounds were not valued. In others, the leaders of the organization did not support diverse opinions, preferring instead to have a sense of artificial harmony as opposed to active debate and constructive conflict. Others simply confirmed that their beliefs or values were simply not a good fit for the organization’s culture.
If you reach that conclusion, you may be faced with the difficult question of whether or not staying in that sort of culture makes sense for you in the long term. If there is some reason that it benefits you for the present, such as getting important experience or working under an influential person in your field, then take advantage of it, but you may want to set a time limit for yourself at which point you will explore other options. After all, research suggests that when there is a mismatch between your personal values and that of your organization, you are at increased risk for burnout.
While there were a small minority of individuals who, based on the self-monitoring exercise, decided they could not safely and authentically be themselves in their current environment, a much greater number of my clients have concluded that their beliefs about needing to censor themselves were exaggerated. For example, they may have observed others expressing their opinions without any negative consequences, or perhaps even being praised for their contributions. Or, they may have experimented with being assertive and realized that their negative predictions about how they would be received didn’t come to pass. With a more balanced view of the situation, they reached the conclusion that they were stifling themselves based on their own fears, as opposed to an objective reality. This opened up the door for them to bring more of themselves to their work.
Finally, as you experiment with being more open, keep in mind one important caveat. Authenticity does not give you carte blanche to engage in bad behavior or to over-share inappropriately. If you make scathing or unkind comments and then follow them with “I’m just being honest” to excuse your tactless delivery, that’s not being authentic – that’s just being rude. In my view, authenticity involves assertively stating one’s perspective, in a way that is respectful, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent. After all, if you are stating your views in a way that takes others aback and causes them to react more in response to their emotional reactions than the content of what you have said, you are not being an effective communicator.
If you want to make a greater contribution by sharing all of your unique gifts, then commit to being more appropriately authentic on the job. You’ll likely feel much more engaged in your work, and you’ll increase the odds that you’ll fulfill your professional potential.
Dr. Patricia Thompson is a corporate psychologist and the President of Silver Lining Psychology, a management consulting firm in which she helps organizations to achieve greater success through executive coaching, team building, and personality assessment for hiring. She is the author of The Consummate Leader: a Holistic Guide to Inspiring Growth in Others… and in Yourself, from which this article was adapted.
To receive more resources such as this article, please sign up for our Transformational Leadership Update by clicking here.