In the immortal words of Grzegorz Markowski’s song, “We want to be ourselves, at long last”. But does it make any sense to “be yourself” at work? While the so-called work-life balance has definitely gained in popularity over the past decade, the latest trends in management focus more on work-life integration. Work is no longer being seen merely a source of income, we also expect to grow in it and to realize our potential. One of the key obstacles in this regard is being fully ourselves – why do we put on masks at work? And should we be taking them off?
Where does our need for pretense come from?
When approaching any social topic, I like to take a look at our childhood first, as that’s when we develop most of our “practical” techniques for handling everyday life, i.e. our defenses and patterns. In an episode of their podcast, Ewa and Paulina touch on this subject, talking about the simple, childish need to be accepted and to belong and about the fact that often in order to “earn” attention or love from their parents, children resort to manipulation or hiding how they truly feel. The same can be said for interactions with our peers, where we often feel pressured to conform to the group. If the strategy developed when we were children works, we usually continue using it as adults. And that is where things get tricky.
When we start working in a traditional, hierarchical structure, we naturally try to figure out what our position is in relation to others, and how we should adjust to this new setting. It’s not as if we’re going to say we “really aren’t feeling it today” in front of our boss. This type of openness is reserved for employees of similar status, if that. On the other hand, the boss can’t fraternize with his subordinates too much either, not to mention admit that he’s having a bad day. Any way you cut it, hierarchy forces us to put on a mask.
It’s not the fault of hierarchy, but rather of the entire culture of the organization. The need to project a certain image in front of your co-workers, constant evaluation of our actions and behavior, social and business expectations – combined, they put us under tremendous pressure to strive for perfection.
We are under pressure to strive for perfection.
The pros and cons of “putting on a mask” at work
In that case, is there no place for authenticity in a traditional management model? Even if there is, fans of separating work from personal life don’t really have to suffer for it. At work, where exhibiting intense emotion is neither commonplace nor appreciated, we get to cut ourselves off from the world and our “problems at home”. Sometimes we even like our work selves more – at work, we give it our all, we’re funny, we might be more patient. It’s a natural part of conforming to one’s social role.
The problem starts only once our vision of a given role (me as an employee) contradicts our vision of ourselves (me as a person). While person-me makes mistakes and is sometimes completely out of it, manager-me has to be infallible, tough, and always know the solution to any given problem. This discrepancy can, and often does, cause inner tension.
In a traditional model, courage is asking a question in a public forum, or questioning your boss
Krzysztof HamerszmitFrontend Developer
Another source of stress for employees in the traditional management model might be the obligation to act in accordance with imposed guidelines and procedures, which leads to some people feeling like they’re constantly “on probation”. Unwritten, but very real communication barriers between superiors and their subordinates often cause misunderstandings, which in turn lead to negative emotions. The question is – is there any other way to do things?
Being yourself completely – meaning what?
What does “being yourself” at work actually mean? It sounds like an empty slogan. We talk so much about authenticity that we often miss the point. I’ll start by underscoring that the emphasis here is on the word completely – you definitely can’t be only a little bit authentic. I’ve already mentioned social roles – each of us is multi-faceted, and takes on multiple roles in life, activating them depending on the context.
The key to authenticity is cohesion.
What do I mean by that? For example: it’s hard to be simultaneously a ruthless, strong boss and a gentle, patient parent. If work “requires” us to be a certain way, that is going to seep into our personal life to some degree. As long as we are growing in a direction that is in keeping with our values, everything’s fine. However, if work unleashes a part of us that we’d rather not know, it’s a sign that something definitely went wrong.
On the other hand, in environments where we are encouraged to be fully ourselves, we also sometimes show ourselves from a less flattering perspective. Or at least that’s what I would call the more emotional, imperfect side of us. However, in this case we have permission from our peers to display weakness. Let’s think about that for a moment – what is better for the team and our goals: locking ourselves up at home for 4 weeks, pretending that we’re doing the task we don’t even know how to begin, or asking for help? Authenticity at work is made possible mostly by accepting imperfections in ourselves and in others.
Dark side of the moon – the upsides and downsides of authenticity
If the option of being yourself at work was a quantifiable business metric or translated directly into employee efficiency, it would probably be universally encouraged. But let us imagine that can we talk openly and honestly with our co-workers, that we can admit to making mistakes or not knowing something, and no one is going to use it against us. Wouldn’t a sense of being accepted at work lower our stress level and improve our efficiency? Based on my personal experience, I can say that yes, it would.
What I think might be challenging for us is the high threshold of honesty and openness. Let me explain: the main source of stress in this case is fear of rejection. Many people find it hard to trust that no one at work wants to “hurt” them. But as soon as we find courage and try to overcome that fear of imperfection or humiliation even for a moment, and we show our real selves to others, we give people a chance to accept us. When that happens, it improves both our morale, and that of our co-workers.
However, it’s not all fun and games. There are consequences to being honest in your work place (or elsewhere).
- Firstly, admitting our mistakes forces us to take responsibility for them, and as I mentioned in my previous article, not everyone likes that.
- Secondly, when we openly say that we don’t know or can’t do something, we can’t delay action any longer – we have to start educating ourselves. The same rule applies to personal problems – once they are vocalized, they stop being an excuse. We can therefore say that authenticity simply obligates us to become more mature at work.
Authenticity obliges us to be more mature in our work.
Mental disorders vis-à-vis being yourself at work
As recently as a few years ago, the subject of mental health was taboo in most environments. Luckily, we are starting to talk about it, including at work. We are moving away from acting like our mental well-being isn’t directly related to how we work. Both of these areas feed into each other.
And so, if you’re working twelve hour days, abusing your mind and body, you won’t be able to escape the fact that it takes a toll on your health – your body will demand you pay it back, sooner rather than later. This could manifest as increased level of cortisol in your blood, a long-term hormonal deficiency, chronic fatigue, or problems with sleeping – to name but a few options. This can be an issue even if you were healthy from the outset, but for some of us it will be an additional blow to an already fragile psyche.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar schizoaffective disorder, ADHD – a growing number of people find out that they suffer from some kind of a mental disorder. Can you try to set your mental health aside when you come to work, and act like everything’s fine? Sure, but not for long.
“Admitting” that you’re unwell is often difficult because of fear of being judged through the lens of your issues. But working in a teal organization requires us to communicate our standards and boundaries – both professional and personal (for example, if I’m a developer and can’t write automatic tests, admitting that requires the same type of courage as coming out). For better or worse, it’s the best way to build trust within a team.
Engagement is more important than perfection
Piotrek ButlewskiUI Developer
I’ve already mentioned the consequences of honesty at work – the same rule applies here. If you admit that you have an illness or disorder, they stop being an excuse. The question now is: “What are you doing about it?” – after all, we know that problems don’t just disappear on their own. We have to work on them. It’s not easy, but in the end, thanks to open communication, we can receive support from our team and improve our chances of getting better.
Several myths about authenticity at work
Finally, I want to dispel certain false assumptions.
“If you’re not an extravert, you’re not being authentic”
“Authenticity means following your heart”
“Professionalism is the antithesis of being yourself”
“Being authentic at work means that there are no taboos”
“Workplaces where everyone can be themselves are more conflict-prone”
YES & NO
At the start of this article, I asked if being yourself at work is worth the hassle – and I think we are ready for the answer. Authenticity comes at a cost, we risk being rejected or – more frequently – misunderstood. Our jokes are not always going to be seen as funny, our points as valid. But think about what we get in return: the freedom to be imperfect and to make mistakes, to trust our co-workers, and the freedom for them to be able to trust us. I think it’s a good deal.