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May 16, 2019

Great Pretender – Are You Free to Be Yourself at Work?

Eleanor Bruce


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©© Getty Images/SolStock

Have you ever received the career advice: "just be yourself"?

We’re often told to bring our "whole selves" to work, and to be authentic in order to achieve satisfaction, improve productivity, create diverse and inclusive workplaces, and feel happier.

Yet most of us would probably admit to being "Great Pretenders" sometimes.

I asked my colleagues at Mind Tools for their views on the matter. Fay, from the marketing team, said, "I experience this when I first start a job. It’s that feeling of not wanting to say anything too ‘out there.’ You’re just evaluating how everyone else acts before you feel like you can truly be yourself. You sometimes pick up on some of this when you come in for an interview. If everyone is sat in silence, for example, is this going to be a place you can be your true self?"

The Challenges of Being Yourself at Work

Authenticity is a complex issue. First, there isn’t a clear and agreed definition. In fact, there's debate over whether the “true self” even exists. And there are many factors that influence your willingness or ability to be “authentic,” including workplace culture and your upbringing.

Research from Deloitte shows that many people, especially minority groups, do feel the need to hide aspects of themselves. They may omit information about our lives, or change what they wear or how they talk, in order to fit in.

As Joe from our marketing team highlights, this pressure to conform can be harmful. "The constraints of having to be too ‘corporate’ mean that you lose your personality, and are constantly thinking about the way that you present yourself, instead of having the freedom to express yourself.

"Doing this daily can be a huge contributor to stress. Instead of focusing on your priorities and workload, you constantly worry that you may not be conforming to the way that the business wants you to talk, walk and act, and you lose focus on what actually matters."

Rosie from our content team said, "I like that people can be themselves as it makes it easier to build relationships and trust.

"However, I do think that sometimes people can take it too far and will say (deliberately or accidentally) quite offensive or inflammatory things that aren't acceptable in the workplace. Those same people tend to then blame their bosses or the wider organization for trying to crush their individuality and create ‘mindless robots.’ In my opinion, authenticity at work is good and valuable as long as it doesn't hurt others."

Client success manager, Suzanne, echoed this point: "I think it's important that everyone is given the freedom to be themselves, but in a respectful, collaborative, professional way."

Clear expectations are incredibly valuable for helping us understand "who" to be at work. If we understand the organization's workplace values, culture and behavioral expectations, it makes it easier for us to assess how to behave.

Who Do You Think You Are?

I’m fortunate because I don’t particularly feel the need to alter my appearance or hide my private life; I am fairly "mainstream," and therefore face little judgment from others. I know that not everyone has this privilege.

I’m also lucky to work in a company where I feel a strong sense of cultural fit. The people at Mind Tools are "my kind of people," so it’s easier to be myself.

But, that certainly doesn’t mean I am the fullest version of "me" when I’m at work. I choose not to talk about certain aspects of my life, for example. I’m probably a far more polite version of myself at work, too.

Does this mean I'm being inauthentic?

I’d argue that it doesn't. There are many different versions of "me" – the "work me," the "home me," the "supermarket me," to name a few. Acting differently in each situation doesn’t mean I’m being inauthentic, because it doesn’t change my values. And I believe that values are the core of authenticity.

I value fairness, teamwork and good manners, among many other things. In any situation, I aim to adhere to my values, even if my actions, words or the way I dress might change.

Be Yourself – How to be More Authentic at Work

But what should you do if you feel you aren’t being your "true self"?

First, use your self-awareness to assess the situation based on what you want and need. You might find that you're already "you" at work. Just because you have a bit of an adventurous side outside the office, doesn’t mean that’s who you want to be at work.

Perhaps you value a more traditional approach to work. Trying to act more like "home you" at work could backfire and actually make you feel less authentic.

But, if you do feel a disconnect between your true self and "work you," then consider this. What makes you feel like you’re not being yourself? Is it the things you say? The way you act? The clothes you wear? This is where knowing your values comes into play.

Sometimes, concerns about not being permitted to be yourself are unfounded. Perhaps they're based on previous experiences where you felt judged or were penalized for your being yourself. "Once bitten, twice shy," as they say.

Take baby steps to address this. Ask a trusted colleague for advice – are you at genuine risk of being judged if you open up?

Then, experiment to see how people react to the "real you." Casually mention something about your personal life, your hobbies, or anything else that you’ve kept to yourself. Or gradually introduce clothing or accessories that represent the real you. Odds are, most people will be genuinely interested to learn more about you.

Also, develop your emotional intelligence and empathy to actively encourage openness in others. Help to create a positive environment where everyone (including you) can be themselves.

As Joe commented, "It’s vital that people don’t just feel like they can be themselves, but that they’re encouraged to be. We need to create an environment where people are encouraged to express themselves. It’s OK to ask questions and talk about things, instead of ignoring them."

Dealing With Less Inclusive Workplaces

Hopefully, most of us feel that we can largely be ourselves at work. But sadly there are still workplaces where being anything other than a corporate cardboard cutout is just not acceptable.

Some people are comfortable hiding who they are at work. They may feel that as long as they have some outlet (a hobby or supportive social group, for example), then they won’t suffer too much from having to moderate themselves at work.

But if hiding the true you is putting your health or well-being at risk, it’s not worth it. You might want to consider moving on.

There is nothing wrong with who you are, and you shouldn't be made to feel that there is.

During your career, you will discover that there’s a workplace for everyone, from the free-spirited to lovers of bureaucracy. The key to achieving authenticity at work is to find somewhere that aligns with your values and that encourages you to be you.

Do you feel like you can be yourself at work? Share your experiences, and your views on the role of authenticity in the workplace, by commenting below. 

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4 comments on “Great Pretender – Are You Free to Be Yourself at Work?”

    1. Thanks Justin for that feedback. Hope you enjoy more of our resources here.

      Mind Tools Team

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