What Does ‘Authenticity’ Really Mean at Work?

Originally published by Lindsey Pollak 18 October 2016.

Being “authentic.” While this has become a buzzword, I think the idea of authenticity transcends trendiness: It’s a trait I admire in others and that I strive for in my own life and work.

Authenticity is especially important for leaders, and based on research I’ve done with my partner The Hartford, I know that a large majority of millennials see themselves as leaders today.

Being authentic sounds like it should be the easiest thing in the world (just be yourself!), and yet I often see the concept being misappropriated. Here are a few misconceptions and some tips on being authentically — and professionally — authentic.

Authentic doesn’t mean “unprofessional”

A participant in one of my business school presentations said, “I feel authentic in sweatpants, so why can’t I wear them to work?” I get where he was going, and of course authenticity means being true to yourself, but if you want to be professionally employed you have to do it in an appropriate way. And that means heeding the norms and boundaries of professionalism in your particular workplace.

Beyond clothing, this means you might have to remove the slang or emoji from your emails even if “that’s the way you talk” and participate in required team-building activities even if you’re an introvert. You can find ways to be your true self within the boundaries set by your employer.

Now, on the other hand, if you truly only feel authentic in your athleisure gear, I totally respect that. But that might mean rethinking your career aspirations and choosing to work for a gym rather than an accounting firm. If you don’t feel authentic sitting at a desk, then you might want to find a career where you can be outside. If your career is uncomfortably hampering your authenticity, then find a place where you can dress and behave exactly how you want.

Authenticity doesn’t mean you always have to be an open book (unless you want to be)

I’m a working mom. I’m married to a man. I’m Jewish. I’m a cisgender woman. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton for President. Lots of people know these facts about me and I don’t consider them secrets. However, I don’t always mention all of these facts about myself in professional situations. (And I understand that even having a choice is a privilege — for example, my colleagues with physical disabilities rarely have a “choice” to reveal that they are blind or in a wheelchair.)

Now, if I worked for an organization that advocates for moms or female political candidates, the above facts about myself would be an integral part of my professional life and I would probably discuss them frequently. Or if someone was spouting off that they don’t think moms should work, my authentic self would feel the need to speak up. As in the previous section, where one chooses to work has an impact on the facts about oneself that become primary.

Bottom line: I have a religion; I have political preferences; I’m a mom. But I believe authenticity includes the right to choose when and how we want to reveal something about ourselves in professional situations.

Authenticity doesn’t mean you have to be perfect

When I initially turned in my Getting from College to Career book manuscript, my editor gave me some unexpected feedback. She said, “The advice is great, but you’re making yourself sound too perfect.” I had thought that to be an authentic career expert, I had to demonstrate all the ways in which I was an authentic success. She reminded me that no one is successful all the time, and that my readers would want to know that everything didn’t always go smoothly in my career.

Her counsel was spot on because to this day, readers often say, “Thank you for telling me about the times you messed up and how you learned from it. It made me feel better about not always feeling successful.”

At the same time, it’s also authentic to own your success. No one is fooled by a humblebrag, and I think it’s important to share the stories of why you’re successful. Even if you don’t write a book, your personal narrative — that you share with colleagues, clients or mentees — could include that you worked hard in school and at your job and that dedication paved the way to your success.

When you are sincerely authentic about lessons you have learned, it benefits everyone around you. Being authentic makes you more relatable, and that’s a quality that every leader can use more of.

 

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