Authenticity. Genuineness. Truthfulness. Straightforwardness even. Whatever way we describe it, to be authentic is to be free to be we are. But how many of us are truly who we are when we go to work. How much of who we are do we lock away. For a large part of my work life, I put a part of me in a box and almost threw away the key. I think I filled the void with food, but that’s a whole other story.
I think we bring our most authentic self to work in the early days of our career. When we haven’t yet learnt about office politics and conforming to fit in. But overtime, and maybe after being too relaxed and loud at an office party, we refine and adapt our behaviours to our surroundings. Not me, not at first anyway. I have never been one for following the pack or being part of a clique. But after a time, I realised that I could not be me, with no filter.
My way of working is more instinctive than learned. I have a busy mind and some ideas stick, some fizzle away and admittedly some are a bit too out there. But when I’m in problem solving mode my mind goes into overdrive. I can see the end game and how to get there. I get excited about expressing those thoughts, and I get insistent that this is what we need to do, and we need to do it now. I would see a sea of blank faces staring back at me. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see what I could. They just saw me, and I wasn’t like them.
In meetings, I would suggest an alternative approach or challenge the current thinking. At best I was ignored, but at times my views were dismissed or shot down. Some days this would make me angry, other days it would make me more creative about how to get things done. I joined forces with a colleague who was the opposite of me in every way. We had nothing in common but made a great team. He would repeat the view or ideas I shared a few days earlier to see if they’d go for it.
There would be nods and murmurs around the table that this could work, and what a great idea. They took what he said at face value. At first, this was just a laugh. But after a while the predictability of their acceptance when he shared my ideas was no longer fun, it was dispiriting. It was about that time I put more of me in my mind box. My mask was well and truly on.
In many ways, this made work easier over the years. I wasn’t pushing against the tide, I towed the line, and followed the pack. I got good results. But this way of working was so against my nature that now and again the real me would break free. I would suddenly realise the screaming in my head was no longer in my head. Oops.
Shocked faces would stare back at me like I was crazy, they’d say, ‘no what?’. Sometimes I would share the thought that was bothering me. And if I dared to let the passion back in, I would excitedly explain my thoughts. Other times, I would shrug because an essential part of me was missing.
I must make it clear that there were many times over the years that I did bring most of me if not all, to work.
These are the times that I did my best work, with amazing people on fantastic projects that I’m very proud of still today.
The best of these leaders had a style and approach that I wanted to emulate. They were emotionally intelligent, and quietly listened and observed our ways of working. They didn’t always agree with me and my way of doing things. It was more a matter of trust. They knew that I would do my best work and get results by doing it my way, not theirs. I remind myself of that when I lead my own team. We all have different ways of getting to the same outcome. We should all be free to express ourselves.
My mask came off after I got ill and realised that life was too short and I’m too old to not be me. It’s just too exhausting. And since we got plunged into the coronavirus pandemic, it seems putting on an actual mask has unmasked many more of us at work.
Our world has been thrown, shaken and stirred. And we’re ruffled, winded and woken. We can literally see into each other’s real worlds through the power of Teams and Zoom. We’re all experiencing good and bad days, even though most days we all say we’re fine.
Now is the time to bring all of who we are to work, because it is too hard not to. Let’s face it, we’ve got enough to deal with right now.
That’s what I’m going to do anyway. I’ve always been a bit marmite so not everyone will appreciate me, and that’s fine. I’m not a follower, I’m a creator, and sometimes a noise maker. This is the imperfect authentic me.
Embrace the authentic you, bring your whole self to work.