Graduates: The importance of being your authentic self in the workplace

Grads Corner
03 July 2015 | Grads Corner | Guest Author

Rene Germain

I’ll never forget the assessment day for my first ever internship at an Investment bank in Canary Wharf 3 years ago. I remember we were set the task of giving a 5 minute presentation on something that we were really passionate about. I did my presentation on my love for Grime music. I remember the looks of confusion on people’s faces from the assessor to the other candidates (blatantly they were thinking what the hell is Grime) but the more I continued to speak, I saw smiles, received a few laughs. Then to round it off, I did the ultimate Rene thing but I made up a rap about the bank and what I had learnt so far. The moment I was finished, the room suddenly erupted; everyone was on their feet, cheering and clapping. The assessor came up to me at lunch and said quite frankly she had never seen a presentation like that and throughout the day, word got around, with everyone congratulating me. This was such an important moment because it was the first time I realised how important it was for me to be myself and not feel like I had to put up this pretense for others.

Why do we put on masks?

This positive experience led me to question why we wouldn’t be our authentic selves in the work environment. What many of us tend to do, in psychological terms is create masks to help us engage with others in a variety of situations. This concept has been explored by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who explains that masks are different personas that we adopt to fit in with the environment, and represent the variety of roles we play in society. These masks act as a protective layer, a type of survival mechanism. Of course in the work environment, depending on the situation we are in, sometimes we adopt these personas because for whatever reason we think it’s so much easier to be THAT person than actually ourselves, something we are all guilty of. However, is this something we should do all the time? In the short term it may seem like the best approach, but long term, it can be quite damaging. Research has shown that wearing a mask in the work environment can hinder the relationship building process, as those around us can actually detect signs of inconsistency in our behaviours, hence leading them to mistrust us. In addition it can be extremely stressful and tiring, constantly switching between masks.

There are those who argue that we should be weary of being our authentic selves in the working environment. In the Harvard Business Review article ‘Be Yourself, but carefully’, Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann explain “ honest sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences at work is a double-edged sword: Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent with cultural or organizational norms—hurting your reputation, alienating employees, fostering distrust, and hindering teamwork.” Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a time and a place. When my manager would ask what I’m listening to, my default was always Ed Sheeran (when actually I was blasting hardcore Hip Hop in my headphones!!). But knowing when it’s appropriate to talk about / reveal certain things shouldn’t mean we can’t be ourselves. I have seen great benefits in my own work life of just being me around my colleagues:

  • In my previous role, being my usual enthusiastic and energetic self really boosted morale in the working environment at a time when the general team mood was low. The summer intern thanked me in his leaving speech for making me people laugh again.
  • My manager overheard me talking with my colleague about my plans to mentor young girls on the weekend. Because of this, he put me forward for this opportunity at work where I was part of a team that visited a local college and advised A level students on their future career path decisions.
  • Me being so vocal about my love for UK Grime and Rap music made other people in my team feel comfortable to share their own interests. My department head is the biggest D Double E and Tempa T fan, and nobody knew this until I started. He came up to me all the time, recommending songs and videos to watch.
  • Most people in my team had never tasted Caribbean food, but became super interested after they saw me bringing in my containers of food from home. Because of this, they did some research and found a Caribbean takeaway around the corner from our offices and now eat there once a week! Some people in my team even had their own bottle of hot pepper sauce on their desk!!

These are all small examples and they may seem rather silly but my point is that being yourself is so much bigger than you. Sharing your interests, hobbies, elements of your culture, the things that make you YOU can have such a positive impact on your team and your relationship with them. I’m not saying it will be like this straight away, it took me a few months to come out of my shell and really get a feel for the environment I was in, but bit by bit I revealed more about myself and I found that it generally made me happier. I was excited to come into work, the work I produced was of a higher quality and more opportunities came my way.

Mike MacIsaac summed it up perfectly in his LinkedIn Article, “If you are a piano, don’t try to be a violin. Be the true instrument that you are because it produces a beautiful and unique sound that is well needed within your organization.”

Check out my medium page for more Careers tips and advice.

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