Authenticity: why you should let colleagues see the REAL you

24 April 2014 -

Beyonce

We spend so much of our time at work wearing masks – but keeping up an act can be tiring and stressful. Andrew Morris of the Academy for Chief Executives provides some tips for freeing your true self in the quest for peak performance

While “authenticity” is a buzzword of the moment in the workplace, I have always believed in the importance of bringing yourself to work. We spend a huge proportion of our lives at work – yet we often wear a mask and don’t show enough of our true selves. At a recent Academy for Chief Executives talk on the subject, it was noticeable that many women were particularly uncomfortable with this state of affairs, suggesting that they feel the need to present a “corporate face” when they’re at work.

But distorting who we are and bending ourselves out of shape each working day is extremely tiring and stressful. It can damage your performance as well as your mental and physical health. What's more, people have a knack of picking up on inauthentic behaviour. That generates mistrust and unsettles relationships. When your personality, values and behaviour are aligned, people will connect with you.

Of course, you cannot be totally yourself at work, and you may need to adapt your behaviour to suit the relationship and context – but not to the extent you’re bending yourself out of shape.

As you go through life, authenticity ought to become more natural as your confidence and belief in your own style grows. If you are never truly relaxed, you may not be in the right role: perhaps you are a proverbial round peg in a square hole. A lot of people are in the wrong jobs and many retire having never found out what they are really great at. They fall into a job and stick to that role for a lifetime, contorting themselves for 40 years or more.

But there are ways of practising and improving self-awareness. Having someone in your organisation to confide in and give you honest feedback will help. You can role-play a meeting with a colleague, rehearsing it to get feedback on how you came across. There are also more formal approaches, such as 360-degree assessments, that can help you understand how other people are wired – an awareness that is a trait of strong managers. Peer-group learning is another valuable way to shake out the issues. Supported by mentoring or coaching, this can help bring out an individual’s essence.

While you can always seek the advice of a trusted friend or your partner, I think it's important not to bring too much work home – you need time for reflection.

Be aware of your blind spots, too. We often feel we need to defend our weaknesses and overcompensate: if you lack confidence, you may come across as aggressive; if you're not great on details, you may become too detail-oriented. It’s far better to work out what you’re good at – your “sword” – and what you're not good at – your “shield”. Don’t spend too much energy trying to become good at things you’re not; instead, find colleagues who can support you. If you know you’re never going to excel at giving a speech to large audience, just top and tail it and allow someone with that “sword” to give the talk.

Balance this, though, against the perils of sticking to your comfort zone too closely. Most managers aspire to be leaders – and what makes you great as a leader is your behaviour: how you react and respond to given situations. So go to a greater level and push yourself to edgier areas. If you always use PowerPoint or notes in presentations, do the presentation from memory. Don’t stick to the tried and tested. You’re still being true to yourself, while honing core skills.

Humour at work is also important. We tend to look at it cynically, even frown upon it. But humour binds people, so if you’re naturally funny, don't suppress it. Likewise vulnerability. It’s a shame people are so afraid to be vulnerable at work, because it shows great confidence and strength.

The true test of whether you are “aligned” is how relaxed you are. How do you feel after a meeting? It may not be the subject matter that’s left you uncomfortable. Maybe you were distorting yourself into something that felt far from real. It is not just your body, but your mind that can start to ache in these situations. On the other hand, you can eat through work if you are in your natural and authentic state.

Andrew Morris is CEO of the Academy for Chief Executives

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