The idea of showing your true self at work may be appealing, but could it mean career advancement or might it be dangerous territory? CLAIRE O’MAHONY gets some expert insight.
Most of us have a work persona. Arguably, developing a business personality is necessary to stay sane and succeed. It could be similar to your “civilian” persona or it could be dramatically different (you could be a house devil and an office angel); either way, there is likely to be elements of “you” that you hold back or push to adapt and/or progress in the work environment.
But what if you could be your true self and reveal the real you, aws and all? The idea of authenticity and work has been gaining traction in the business world for some time now. Like transparency, authenticity has become highly valued. One study from 2014, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Happiness Studies, whichis focused on the scientific understanding of subjective wellbeing, discovered that the greater an employee’s feeling of authenticity, the larger their job satisfaction, engagement and self-reported performance.
But please pause before you consider this licence to tell your colleague precisely what you think about them; overshare your personal life, or announce in a meeting that, actually, you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing with a project, and it’s all gone a bit pear-shaped.
If you choose to understand being authentic as simply “being yourself”, you risk damaging your reputation, as well as potentially not growing professionally – for example, if you’re being “true” to yourself and you stay in your comfort zone, you may avoid taking on tasks you think are too difficult because you’re not confident in your abilities, and thus won’t learn new skills.
According to Stephen Joseph, a professor of psychology, health and social care at the University of Nottingham in the UK, living authentically is a three-part process. His formula for it is “know yourself, own yourself and be yourself”. In his recently published book, Authentic: How to Be Yourself & Why it Matters (Piatkus, €19.50), he explores our hunger for authenticity in all aspects of our lives, and gives practical exercises to embrace it. According to his findings, when people are in relationships where they feel accepted and understood, they drop their defences, examine themselves psychologically, accommodate new information and live more authentically, which means true happiness.
He acknowledges that being authentic in your job can be a balancing act. “Workplaces are notoriously difficult; full of conflict, seething rivalries, and so on, and it’s not always easy to be ourselves. “Sometimes in workplaces, we’ve got to hold our tongues, and we’ve got to make judgments as to when the time is right to stand our ground on something, or maybe walk away from a con ict. But the key always is rst and foremost taking responsibility for our actions. So if we do walk away from a con ict, it’s through self-knowledge and wisdom that we’re making the best choice in that moment, so we’re being authentic. What I’m saying is that while authenticity in all situations is a good idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean telling everyone what they think.”
Dr Daragh Keogh of the Irish Institute of Emotion-Focused erapy agrees with the need for balance and says that in order for people to be happy we need to, to some extent, have our core emotional needs met: to feel safe; to feel love, belonging or connection, whether romantically or in the context of friendship, groups or communities; and to feel self-worth, which comes into being over time, in part as a consequence of how we are valued by others.
“We have important ‘identity’ related needs, so what we do, how we do it, and the context within which we do it are all very important to us; and our sense of wellbeing is likely to be greatly impacted by how authentic we feel we are being to ourselves in these respects.
“At the same time, we also have needs for safety and relationship. It is important that we are able to present ourselves in work environments in a way that allows us to feel safe, and to develop healthy working relationships with our colleagues.”
The needs for autonomy and identity, as well as for attachment and closeness need to be respected, Dr Keogh maintains, and this can be distilled down into moderating your position if you think it’s going to alienate or upset co-workers.“It’s ‘to thine own self be true’ – while also remembering that what ultimately is most important to most of us is the quality of our relationships with others. Being true to yourself to the extent that you end up fired or alone is an almost certain route to distress.” In one chapter of Joseph’s book, he explores overcoming toxic workplaces and developing leadership through authenticity. Authentic leadership, he maintains, doesn’t look like the traditional model. “In many workplaces, senior management often expects leaders to be seen to be leading. So people end up sending emails to make sure there’s a paper trail of who is being asked to do what, and people start behaving in ways to be seen by those above them as leaders, which thwarts the task of leading those below them, as they’re too busy focusing on pleasing the people above them. The authentic leader is about nurturing the people who are following them. It’s not about putting on a show to impress other people. So for example, it’s not about being seen to have the answers to the questions, but helping people and the answers for themselves.”
Perhaps the next time you’re tempted to micromanage, or you’re being micromanaged, it might be illuminating to remember that this is possibly the sign of a faux, inauthentic boss.