I'm reading loads of posts at the moment on being "your authentic self". Many of these articles also raise the question of whether you should be your authentic self at work, and to what extent this should be allowed or supported.
My question is this: what the hell are all these people on about?
This may sound a little “old man yells at cloud”, but bear with me. A lot what’s written on the topic is vague and unclear. As with many things you read in business and management, the concept is part insight and part buzzword.
There appears no single dictionary-standard definition of what the phrase means. But a fairly comprehensive definition is, “who you truly are as a person, regardless of your occupation, regardless of the influence of others, it is an honest representation of you. To be authentic means not caring what others think about you.” (Read more here)
I'm a middle aged bloke who reads novels of pretty much any genre. I'm a heavy metal fan. I love getting tattoos. I'm a commuter who listens to self-improvement audiobooks. I'm a considerate father who relentlessly pummels his children with dad jokes. I'm a company director who always gives the best impression of the company when meeting other professionals. I'm a creative individual who writes, blogs, and plays guitar. I can't put up a shelf. I think the answer to "Best British band ever, Beatles v Stones?" is Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath are a close second.
So which if those is my "authentic self"?
All of them, of course. We are multi-faceted individuals who show different sides of ourselves (or wear different 'masks') in different situations.
Here's another point. When you sit at my table I have certain expectations of you. Likewise, when I sit at someone else's table they will have expectations of me - dress, conduct, contributions. Our "authentic selves" are irrelevant. We come together to do a job, complete a task, or solve a problem. Cognitive diversity is an incredibly important element in effective problem-solving, and the best solutions are found, ironically for this post, by diverse teams unafraid to challenge each other, voicing opinions and ideas that others won't think of because of their own backgrounds. All of which should be filtered through the prism of the organisation's culture; of professional conduct and professional expectations.
If this sounds a little confusing and self-contradictory, then fair enough. A quick Google search brings up plenty of posts on the importance of being your authentic self, of the benefits of bringing your authentic self to the workplace, etc, etc - but the first article describes how "in order to reap many of the benefits of feeling authentic you may have to betray your true nature". Groupthink, in other words.
Then there’s the opposite. The loudmouth who thinks everyone should listen to them and that they should be able to say whatever they want as nobody should interfere with their right to be their ‘authentic self’. In other words, the phrase can be a shield behind which people hide from criticism or accountability. I’m not saying this is what the term means, just that some will use it this way.
You may have a job in a company or industry that aligns with your personal values. Good. You may find yourself a fantastic fit for your team. Good. You may find yourself working in a relaxed, permissive environment that allows you to wear band T-shirts and show your tattoos. Good. Your authentic self’, in terms of your values, align with the people paying you to do a job.
Or you may find yourself working for somewhere that restricts what you can wear, how you look, what you can say and how you can say it. And you may, rightly or otherwise, consider this short sighted and small minded. Either way, you're at their table. You can fit in, or flee. Remember that if you do leave, you should be leaving with all the experience and skills you are able to take from the place (otherwise, what are you doing there?). They, on the other hand, are losing an employee. A fantastic employee who could have brought a lot to the team they are now missing out on; or a disruptive entitled employee who thinks it's their place to change the culture around their own values; or a mediocre employee they've already forgotten about.
I know I have left companies in the past as it was apparent their values did not reflect mine. This was my choice, and I had no expectation that the company would bend itself around my ‘authentic self’.
To me, the whole notion of being authentic at work is overhyped. It really comes down to one thing; how and if you choose to fit in with the culture at work.
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