Many of us may be grappling with being truly authentic. Think how you supply a benign “I’m good” when someone inquires how you are, perhaps wanting to save face despite multiple stresses to the contrary. Or the classic dressing room dilemma: someone asking how they look in this and you struggling between a lie and the answer that is less than flattering.
Authenticity in the workplace has its own difficulties, benefits and ramifications. How can you be yourself without compromising professionalism? And if you are bringing your full self to work, how do you navigate contradictory personalities? Erika Michalski, Ed.D., Colorado-based founder and CEO of Strategically Authentic, helps us make sense of the authenticity paradox.
Setting your authenticity level in the workplace
Michalski sees authenticity as a mindset that requires not only embracing who you are, but also letting go of who you are not.
“It is the choice to exist as yourself across all situations with confidence and pride, without (for example) letting the latest tweet from a celebrity indicating something you are passionate about is no longer ‘trendy’ disrupt your sense of self,” she says. “The work toward authenticity in the workplace really starts with someone recognizing the difference between, Who do I think I am supposed to be? and Who actually am I?, then responding accordingly.”
Understanding who you are could potentially be an issue.
“It often requires a lot of reflection because some people have never truly identified their values, they have simply internalized the values of people around them,” Michalski says. “Once someone has clarity on their authentic values, behaviors should reflect those. These behaviors may range from simple choices like how to dress and the type of growth opportunities they pursue to more conscious efforts around setting boundaries.”
The benefits of authenticity in the workplace
A sense of certainty about other members of the team is one benefit to developing a culture of authenticity, according to Michalski.
“When people are showing up authentically, they are also likely to be consistent in how they perform,” she says. “This can help teams identify strengths to leverage and plan for traits that may be less than ideal within the team.”
In addition to establishing mutual respect and reliability, Michalski notes that when team members feel safe to exist as themselves, they also feel safe to contribute ideas as they are developing them, allowing for more input from others. No need to wait for a perfectly formed idea to raise your hand!
Can you ever truly be yourself at work?
Altering your behavior to fit organizational culture and perform a certain way is code switching, and it can be draining to perpetually be a “version” of something, Michalski says. Trying to remember which version you were when you last interacted with someone may also prove challenging.
“If you are worried about who you were at the last quarterly meeting, you may be too distracted to shine during this quarterly meeting. Wasting energy could ultimately cost job opportunities.”
If you demonstrate who you truly are and then you are given a big project, you can take confidence in knowing that your authentic self is who your leadership really wanted.
“And existing authentically will generally increase the likelihood that opportunities align with your values… which will subsequently increase the likelihood those opportunities are both stimulating and satisfying.”
Potential downsides and mitigating conflict
Michalski believes some may weaponize authenticity in the workplace to justify poor behavior. “I have heard people say, ‘I’m just being my authentic self’ after doing something problematic and getting called out for it.”
However, there’s a difference between someone behaving untoward and someone whose personality doesn’t always mesh with ours.
“You can do great things with people you wouldn’t invite out for a beer after work,” Michalski says. “So if there is a culture of authenticity within a team, and there is also a culture of shared accountability, the leadership of the team should be able to help support the team’s ability to move toward its goal even if folks aren’t ‘besties.’”
Authenticity in the workplace moving forward
It’s important to remember that while authenticity in the workplace is grounded by consistency, people evolve as we gain new insights and experiences.
“If someone values social connection, how that plays out may look different when they are single and childless than when they are a married parent of three. There is also the reality that someone’s values can dramatically change as a result of significant life events.”
The final proof point for choosing to pursue authenticity, Michalski says?
To bear this in mind: “No one is for everyone. There will always be people who don’t like you. But living authentically is the best way to make sure you aren’t one of them.”
Photo by AYA images/Shutterstock
Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master's degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.