Why You Need to Be Your Real Self at Work
If you're like a lot of businesspeople, you may feel like there's more than one of you. There's the you who wears suits and sits in meetings. The you who knows how to make a great pitch or hire and fire an employee. Then there's the you who has a spouse who drives you crazy, or has trouble understanding your kids, or wishes you could find your soulmate. The you who still doesn't feel like an adult around your parents.
Take me. I'm the face at the bottom of this column wearing makeup and pearls, but as I write this I'm wearing an old sweatshirt and looking out the window at a scene so rural that we have to rinse our garbage so the local bear population won't pull open our cans. The me who writes this column and sits at the head of ASJA board meetings seems different from the me who mourns my mother's Alzheimer's, or is a little bit sad that I will never have kids.
We all do it: We bring one part of ourselves to work and leave the rest of ourselves at home. Maybe it's time to change that.
I had a fascinating conversation on this topic with David A. McKnight, an image consultant and author of "The Zen of Executive Presence." He argues that the best way to project and maintain an effective executive image is to bring at least part of yourself to the table. Though his focus is clothing and visual style, the lesson runs much deeper than that. He offers some powerful reasons why you should bring your whole self to your business image:
1. People won't follow you if they don't know who you are.
McKnight learned this the hard way at his first job after graduate school. "I wasn't very authentic, and it came through in one of my reviews," he says. "They said, 'David performs very well, but his team doesn't feel like they really know who he is.'"
There was a good reason for that: McKnight had been hiding his sexual orientation. "I was coming out as a gay black man in Corporate America, and it was very difficult," he says now. "The way I hid it was to dress super-conservative, with only navy blue suits and white shirts." Until that review, he hadn't realized that his secrecy came off as aloofness, and that was standing in his way as a leader.
Over time, he learned to relax, both personally and in his clothing choices. "I started to feel a little more comfortable with myself and more confident, I found I could really be me, and wear a pink shirt, and be more stylish. I knew my work was always of very high quality."
2. A fake you will make clients and contacts uncomfortable.
They may not even know why. But McKnight notes that most people have an instinct for these things. "It's really important that the way you feel inside and your values and beliefs and who you are internally match the external. If the two are incongruent, that's when people's antennas tend to go up, and they feel there's something about you that isn't authentic."
3. An honest workplace is a more effective workplace.
Often, people hide their true selves or true concerns because they fear the truth will be detrimental to their careers. "A working mother may be less inclined to say that she can't make a 6 o'clock meeting because she has to pick up her children," McKnight says. "She may view it as a hindrance to her ability to get promoted." In the same way, he says, African-American people may straighten their hair, or those with regional or foreign accents may work to suppress them. "There are so many different ways we cover," he says.
The problem is that this particular choice to be dishonest makes the workplace or the industry worse for everyone, because it contributes to an environment where no one feels entitled to be human. "When people uncover by choice, they feel more open, and the workplace becomes more inclusive," McKnight says.
4. You'll find out sooner if there's a bad match.
No one likes change, and changing workplaces or industries can be particularly unappealing. But if you're working in an environment where you can't be your authentic self, you're unlikely to succeed, and unlikely to be happy if you do. The time to find out is now, before you invest more time and effort, if you're in a career where you'll always be fighting against the norm, and to decide if that's what you want.
If not, as McKnight notes, there are many rankings out there of the best places to work where people can preserve their family lives and be who they are without fear of repercussion. If your company or industry doesn't fit who you are, there will be plenty of others that do.
5. You'll connect better with customers.
"Clients who feel they can identify with you are more likely to do business with you," McKnight says. "On the most fundamental level, people do business with people they like. If you're trying to shield certain aspects of you are, people will feel like there's some invisible veil."
Lifting that veil gives you the chance to relate to customers with a deeper connection. "If we can be who we are, then people with either like us or they won't," he says. "But it won't be because of something we're doing or not doing."
6. You'll be happier.
McKnight recalls working with an investment banker who was an artist in her off hours. She'd spent her career projecting a very buttoned-down image, in keeping with that traditional and male-dominated industry. McKnight worked with her to let a little of her artistic side show through.
It was a huge boost to her sense of wellbeing in the workplace. "She felt so self-confident," he says. "She told me she felt like a different person."
7. You'll be more successful.
People who bring their authentic selves to work are not only happier, they're much more productive, McKnight says. It's easy to see why. "I can tell you from experience that it's very, very exhausting to pretend to be what you think others expect."
That explains why he's often seen careers take off when people become more authentic in the workplace. "People really shine when they are being themselves," he says.
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MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.