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  • Clare Burlingham

Were you the real you at work today?

Some years ago, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg famously implored her listeners at Harvard Business School to bring their “whole selves” to work. The message went viral and soon companies in the tech industry and beyond began to encourage both existing and prospective employees to be their authentic selves at work.

It’s a great message, but how many of us still feel there is often a disconnect between the persona we think our bosses and colleagues want us to be, and who we really are?

As our careers progress, particularly in highly competitive arenas like sales, we can find ourselves trapped in a scenario where we have become someone else at work. Before we arrive at the office (or more often the web cam just now!), we take a deep breath, and put on the mask of this ‘other’ person, who can have quite different personality traits to the one our family knows and loves.

But what creates the need for us to wear this mask? Careers advice will often talk about “upping your professionalism”, “dressing for success”, and consciously using body language to send a particular message. All this is of course, good advice, but how to make changes such as these without losing our sense of self?

And what is the impact on both the business we work in and on ourselves of playing this other role long-term? The effort of switching between work and home masks can become increasingly confusing and exhausting, raising stress levels and anxiety. It can feed the sense of imposter syndrome, undermining our confidence.

From a company perspective, unconfident employees can feel stifled, keeping quiet about their real opinions and ideas. This can encourage ‘group-think’ within teams where a lack of dissenting voices allows proposals to be implemented without challenge, and where creativity becomes dulled.

But it is not enough for just us as individuals to reach the conclusion that we should be true to ourselves at work. Organisations too need to recognise that they must take responsibility for making the workplace somewhere we can all be our authentic selves.

Real progress has been made towards advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but this remit needs to also extend to diversity of personality. Recent research has suggested that work environments where people feel they can express themselves freely, not only perform better, but are also more creative and more likely to solve problems together.

A team that has acceptance of one and other’s differences tends to listen to each other and respect each other’s positions. They are able to share different ideas without feeling ostracised and researchers say this has a positive effect on individuals’ engagement and commitment. This is especially relevant for people that are in a minority in a group, such as very young or shy employees or people facing cultural barriers. If people feel misunderstood or negatively judged, they are less eager to stand out and show what they have to offer.

We can all start to make a difference to this immediately. It doesn’t matter what your role or your level in an organisation is. Think about it both inside and out. Are you the real you at work? And are you allowing the people in your team or the people you work with to be the real them?

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