“Just be yourself” - you’ve probably heard this throughout your life. Although cliché, it is great advice. Being yourself helps you to avoid burnout, form meaningful relationships, and even perform better. But being your true self is easier said than done in some situations. One area where you may struggle with authenticity is at work.
It can be particularly difficult for individuals with marginalized identities because they too often face consequences for being themselves. Historically, there have been strict written and unwritten rules for how to conduct one's self professionally, with those rules not always being fair to everyone. But it seems that many of those rules are now being questioned, as the majority of us have been working from home for the last couple of years.
In her Ted talk entitled “The Myth of Bringing Your Full, Authentic Self to Work,” Jodi-Ann Burey uncovers some of the challenges she has faced as a Black woman in the professional world. A quote that stands out from her talk is, “Without accountability to examine the systems of bias and power, the call for authenticity fails.”
Nobody, no matter their race, sexuality, gender, age, or any other part of their identity, should ever be made to feel like they must hide who they are in order to succeed in the workplace. We will discuss some ways that leaders and employees can make space for authenticity for all workers later.
But first, let’s get familiar with what it means to be authentic and why it is so beneficial.
What is Authenticity?
What does “just be yourself” mean at work? It doesn’t mean that you must act exactly the same way throughout all of your interactions, as that is unrealistic. Nor does it mean that you need to share every detail of your personal life. At times it may be necessary to protect your boundaries and keep aspects of yourself separate from certain settings or people. And that’s perfectly okay.
Authenticity is simply when our internal selves (our values, motivations, and interests) align with our behavior. This can look very different depending on your preferences and work style. Cultivating authenticity is a lifelong practice of learning about yourself, and it requires experimentation. You might try something and then realize that it didn’t feel right. When this happens, you learn something new about yourself and might be more comfortable being a bit more open in the future.
Benefits of Authenticity
Hiding your authentic self in the workplace is likely contributing to burnout more than you may realize. The effort you expend trying to control your work image is costly — performing all day at work is exhausting. Once that pressure comes off, you free up so much energy to put into your work. You will also probably notice that you have more energy to spend on developing other aspects of your life, like your relationships. This brings us to the next benefit...
Form Meaningful Relationships
You might think it’s easier to put up a barrier while you’re at work and separate your social life from your work life. But you most likely spend a good portion of your days at work, so being able to have those strong connections at work will be extremely beneficial. The importance of having meaningful relationships cannot be stressed enough. Studies have found having strong connections to be related to better job performance, and even to increased longevity.
When you constantly put on a mask at work and feel like you have to stay silent on topics that are important to you, you will likely feel stressed and disconnected from your work. However, once that mask comes off, you’ll be better motivated to engage with and commit to your work and you can watch your performance soar. In an interview about authenticity at work, Human Resources and Recruitment Practitioner Madison Butler explains “When you empower people to be exactly who they’re intending to be in the world, you get people who are more focused on what they’re doing every day. If I’m not focused on the sound of my voice, I can really focus on what I’m saying.”
In Google’s research on what makes a successful team, they found psychological safety to be the most important factor. Psychological safety means that people are given the space to communicate openly, and they know that they can make mistakes without facing harsh consequences. Psychological safety is directly related to authenticity. When people know that they won’t be punished for being themselves, they are much more likely to act authentically.
How to Practice Authenticity at Work (and Make Space for Others to Do the Same)
Now that we’ve established what authenticity is and why it’s important, you might be thinking “okay that’s great, but how do I actually do it?” Whether you are in a position of leadership at your organization or not, we’ll go over some strategies to help you encourage authenticity in yourself and others.
As discussed earlier, some work settings might not be particularly conducive to authenticity, especially for those with marginalized identities. That needs to change. Both the companies and the employees will see the benefits of more open and inclusive workspaces. When authenticity is encouraged, it has been shown to lead to better employee motivation, innovation, and productivity, as well as much higher retention rates.
Make Inclusion a Priority
The first step in enabling authenticity for all employees is to make workplaces more inclusive. This starts with strong leaders who encourage empathy and a sense of belonging. Strong leaders also take steps to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the recruiting process.
If you are not in a position of leadership, you can still play a major role in contributing to a more inclusive work environment. Some actions you can take to achieve this are to speak up if you see fellow coworkers being treated unfairly and to normalize authenticity by doing so as much as you can (without facing consequences).
Practicing mindfulness is a great way to increase your capacity for authenticity. Through mindfulness exercises, people can become more aware of their own values, feelings, and motivations. The more self-aware you are, the easier it will be to act authentically. Many also report that through mindfulness practice, they have learned to live more intentionally and remain more present in their day-to-day lives.
As the great philosopher, Ferris Bueller, once said “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s easy to get swept up by your daily routine and miss out on quality experiences. Mindfulness helps you avoid this.
Practicing mindfulness can look really different depending on your preferences. It could be daily meditations, mindful walking, taking breaks to check in throughout the day, or anything else you like. There really are no rules to it; just make it work for you!
Push Yourself to Be Vulnerable
Being yourself can be scary, but once you step out of your comfort zone and open up just a little bit, it will start to be much less intimidating. You can start small, maybe by talking about some of the ways that you’ve had to adjust to the pandemic with your coworkers.
Be a Good Listener
Authenticity is very much connected to your relationships. This means that being authentic isn’t only about being yourself, but also about allowing others the space to do the same. Being a good listener pushes you to be more present in the moment, and in doing so you learn more about yourself and others. This is one of the ways that authenticity helps build meaningful relationships.
Having someone give you their full attention, and really listen to what you have to say is a beautiful thing. When you are a good listener, others feel seen and heard, helping to give them the confidence to be themselves.
The very truth of the matter is that you are a complicated combination of your DNA and your experiences. You have a perspective that only you can have. Bringing your full self to everything you do will only further strengthen the confidence you have in yourself. What you may be dismissing is that your unique perspective is so very important to the rest of us. You will think of things that we would not consider – and we can do the same for you. True collaboration is the only way we can solve some of the really challenging problems we encounter – and we all need to bring our full selves for that to be possible.