How to Be More Authentic at Work
Despite the pressure to conform, showing your true self is the path to more satisfying work. To get ahead and gain favour, many employees make their best efforts to reflect the values that are dominant within their organisation. Whether a workplace is fiercely competitive or extremely team-orientated, people’s success depend on conforming in terms of physical attire and “talking shop” to show they can fit in socially. This generates a great deal of stress for employees whose backgrounds, values and perspectives do not readily fit the prototype for success in their work environments.
So what drives conformity and encourages people to suppress their authenticity at work?
Some employees feel pressure to suppress their personal values and pretend to go along with the values of their organisation. They worry about being passed over for promotions if they show how important being a parent is to them, they worry about being viewed as radical if they wear clothing that reflects their religion and they worry about being misunderstood and outcasted if they disclose personal experiences of inequity and workplace micro-aggression.
In these situations, we often perceive it is safer to put up a facade of conformity, where we silence our divergent perspectives. There is a smile when there needs to be a smile, a frown when there needs to be a frown, and a nod when there needs to be a nod.
Unfortunately, when we put up this facade, it creates a sense of dissonance, and we experience higher symptoms of depression. We end up less engaged and less committed to our organisation, with more intentions to leave. That’s the irony of it all. Because we’re pretending to fit in, we eventually decide we want out. The opposite of creating facades is authenticity, the alignment between our internal sense of self and our outward behaviour.
Research suggests that when we experience authenticity, when we feel that we’re living out our personal values and perspectives, we feel a greater sense of well-being. Being our true self allows us to have lower levels of depression, we tend to be more satisfied with life, and we are highly engaged in our jobs.
What does authenticity look like?
When we were children, many of us were told to just be ourselves. But no one ever told us how to do it, because most people don’t know how. It takes some self-analysis and a deeper understanding of what it means to be authentic.
1. Authenticity is relational. We live in a world of relationships. We exude our authenticity, and then it is witnessed by others. Because of that, authenticity needs to be combined with emotional intelligence and respect, listening and understanding. That doesn’t mean that our authenticity must be shaped so we are universally liked, it’s OK that our authenticity might challenge some people. We might even offend a bit. Only if our authenticity is intended to hurt or disrespect someone should put motives be questionable.
2. Authenticity is a personalised journey. For some of us, our values line up with the values of our environment. When we exude authenticity, it is welcome. But in many cases, the choice to be authentic is a bit risky. Authenticity could be a pathway with no signposts that you have to navigate alone. You may have a few people whose steps you can follow, but you’re all still trying to figure it out. How you choose to be authentic may be very different from how your colleague, your sister, or your friend chooses to do it. You may find that your attire (such as clothing and hairstyle) is critical to reflecting your authenticity, while someone else may want to integrate family life as an extension to work (for example, occasionally bringing their children into their workplace). Others may choose to honour their culture with art set on display in their office space or a piece of jewellery they wear.
3. Authenticity is based on core values. Authenticity is not about whether we should place the coffee maker on the second or third floor. It is about fundamental aspects about ourselves, our identity, our beliefs, and our perspectives about what is right. While some of our values are malleable and can change over time, others are core to us and are very difficult to shake. If we compromise them, we are not going to feel good. We can have core values related to politics, religion, upbringing, or social or economic status. As noted above, we may also have core values regarding family life, our culture, and our physical appearance.
How can one be more authentic?
Core values are the basis of our habits and are therefore difficult to change, but it’s necessary if those habits (although authentic) are working against you.
When you compromise your core values, you are compromising your well-being.
Your threshold of authenticity is the level of authentic engagement that brings about benefits to your well-being, that level of satisfaction of feeling true to yourself. Think about those times when you were fully engaged and you thought, “This is my moment. I feel authentic.” Whom were you with? What were you doing? How can you replicate that more?. In order to get there, it might mean having vulnerable conversations, or sharing more of your identity with others. Take the time to think about those places where you can bring more of yourself. You don’t have to do it all at work. Maybe there are other contexts where you can express your political values, for example.
Authenticity is not really about exuding everything and baring your soul all the time. It is about identifying what’s important to you and determining how much you can integrate those values into your work life or other areas, so that you can experience life satisfaction, feel engaged, and make a positive contribution to work and society.
The challenge for organisations today is how to manage a workplace that encourages authenticity. As a leader, what do you do when everyone is bringing in diverse perspectives? You have to manage those perspectives in a way that still allows the organisation to thrive. Those leaders who are willing to take this on will benefit from more innovative conversations, organisational learning, and employees will feel confident and engaged because they’re bringing their true selves into the workplace.
Remember, authenticity is a journey, and no one can tell you where it should lead you. For some of you, being authentic might be the most courageous thing you have ever done.