Bringing your authentic self to the workplace is integral to career success and growth, and it increases job satisfaction. Leadership needs to create a safe environment and encourage the practice of empathy.
Being Your Authentic Self
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” – Joseph Campbell
What Does It Mean to be “Authentic?”
We’ve all heard them: Media figures, motivational speakers, and other “influencers” urging us to be our “authentic selves.” We’re told that being “authentic” will allow us to lead happier, more fulfilling lives, but what does that really mean? Is it only for close personal relationships? Can we be our authentic selves at work? Are there risks? Are there limits? This post will take a look at these issues.
Authenticity, at its core, means that our words and actions consistently align with our values. That means having a strong sense of who we are and what’s important to us. But there’s more to it.
Authenticity also means we’re aware of our feelings and emotions in the moment, and that we’re able to acknowledge them as we go through our day. In other words, authenticity isn’t just one state of mind. It includes being present and aware of what’s going on in the moment. That makes authenticity a process, and a practice we can develop as part of our lives.
Being our authentic self comes with some risks. We’re more vulnerable when we’re being true to ourselves than we are when we’re playing an expected role. It takes courage to break free: Will we be judged? Will we be rejected? The risks mean that we’re more likely to be authentic in safe environments and in close personal relationships.
But what if we could expand that horizon? Research has shown positive links between authenticity and higher self-esteem, greater psychological well-being, and increased job satisfaction. Can we allow authenticity to move from our private lives to our public lives? Let’s take a look into what it means to be authentic in the workplace.
Bring Your Authentic Self to Work
Writing in the Harvard Harvard Business Review, author Susan McPherson urges us (as the headline gives away) to: “Bring your ‘authentic’ self to work.” She writes, “Being yourself is the best way to form meaningful relationships, which are integral to career success and growth, no matter what field you work in.” McPherson advocates forging deeper human connections in the workplace, not just practical or “transactional” ones.
Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, says that without authenticity, “[w]e aren’t able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend . . . too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the ‘right thing.’”
Robbins has defined authenticity as “honesty, without self-righteousness, and with vulnerability.” We might rephrase that more simply as “honesty with empathy and vulnerability.” The last two qualities let us relate to each other more easily as human beings, to recognize a bit of ourselves in another person.
Being Authentic Self Takes Practice
How do we start? Small steps are best. We don’t have to tell our life story, or to weep an ocean of tears, to be authentic and vulnerable. It’s best that we don’t! Keep in mind that authenticity can be seen as a practice, something to be cultivated through deliberate effort over time.
Mike Robbins uses the “iceberg” metaphor (that is, the bulk is hidden). He suggests that we “lower the water line,” just a bit. In other words, that we take courage and reveal just a little bit more about ourselves than may be comfortable in that moment. With attention and practice, we can become more open to authentic moments as they arise.
We might, for example, begin by adding a personal detail or two to the general small talk before a meeting. Susan McPherson suggests listening for personal details from others and following up when we feel a connection.
Creating a safe space for people to share a little more about themselves is a great start. Businesses and organizations can help the process by having a coach or facilitator work with groups. Discussion and group exercises can break the ice and set the process in motion.
Are There “Authentic” Limits?
Any idea can be taken too far, or applied in the wrong way. Authenticity is no exception. “Authenticity without empathy is selfish”, says Wharton professor Adam Grant. He warns that too much authenticity can appear “self-serving and self-absorbed.”
A key to avoiding these issues is to keep empathy for others firmly in mind. The goal of being authentic is to build closer human relationships, which also includes respecting the boundaries of other people. Small steps are another key.
Authenticity isn’t automatic. It’s a practice that we build with intention and deliberate effort. With practice, we become open to making personal connections in more areas of our lives, which brings both greater success and greater satisfaction.
Rachel Burr is a leadership coach with over 20 years of experience working with CEOs and the C-suite across all industries, in organizations of from 20 to 10,000 employees. Rachel holds dual master’s degrees in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and numerous certifications in the field of executive coaching.
Rachel is a “people expert” who works with clients to unleash their leadership potential and catalyze growth momentum for teams and organizations.