There’s an adage that goes something like “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Whether this was uttered by Oscar Wilde or not is debatable. Regardless of who said it, the idea is a good one. And more than ever, it’s an idea that’s relevant to workplaces everywhere: we need more people who aren’t afraid to be themselves.
Now, what exactly does it mean “to be yourself”? I’m not suggesting that you wear your bikini to work or that you arrive at work straight from last night’s party because that “defines who you are”. I’m suggesting that you come to work and be authentic, complete with the good and bad. Get comfortable with your talents, vulnerabilities, failures, and accomplishments—and then be open about them in the workplace.
Woah, this is starting to feel uneasy, right? It doesn’t have to be that way.
Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work, explains: “Regardless of where you work, what kind of work you do, or with whom you work—it’s possible to show more of your true self and become more satisfied, effective, and free. And whether you’re a business owner, leader, or just someone who wants to have more influence, leading with authenticity allows you to impact your team’s culture so that they can be more authentic, too—which will unlock greater creativity, connection, and performance for your company.”
Why be yourself?
While being your true self at work might seem daunting, the benefits are clear. Minda Zetlin addresses a solid set of reasons (leaders—I’m looking at you in particular to take note). Here are four more equally compelling reasons to consider:
- It’s hard work being someone else: Maintaining a totally different persona takes work and energy. It’s also stressful. You may be surprised what a relief it is when you decide to take down the cover.
- It builds trust and relationships: Have you ever had an interaction with someone that left you unsure of who they are? When you show up as yourself, you remove obstacles to trust and you can set about making real connections. This impacts everything from your relationships with co-workers to those with your customers.
- It improves teamwork: One of the things I like about working with my team, is that we welcome and embrace each other’s quirks. We allow each other to be our full selves. This helps us work and connect better, together. And we have a lot of fun to boot.
- It boosts your overall experience at work: A workplace that’s welcoming and accepting of each individual as themselves, is a much better place for everyone. If you know that your peers and leaders are arriving as themselves (and without judgement of others), you’ll be more inclined to do so too—and your overall experience will be elevated.
How to be yourself at work
That all sounds fantastic. But, what if you’re not comfortable being more open in your workplace, or you’re not sure how much to share about yourself? Those are reasonable concerns, but they can be overcome by starting with, well, yourself.
Before you can bring your whole self to work, you need to understand who that whole person is. Self-awareness is a critical component of being able to present yourself in an authentic way. Dorcas Cheng-Tozun believes self-awareness is essential for life and work: “High levels of self-awareness have been linked with personal development, healthy relationships, and effective leadership.”
If you’re ready to take the plunge, Mike Robbins (the author I referenced earlier) shares five tips to bring your whole self to work. If you’re looking for an easy start, he offers: “Some simple things we can do to be more authentic at work are admit when we don’t know something, acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake, or ask for help in a genuine way. All of these take courage and require us to embrace vulnerability and let go of our need to be right.”
Not everyone thinks this is a good idea
Some say that encouraging someone to “be yourself” is bad advice. That it actually hinders more than helps since it causes people to become complacent, accept the status quo, lose credibility, and possibly feel defeated if they’re not happy with who they are.
These concerns are valid, if you don’t pay attention to other factors around you in the workplace. Being yourself is just one part of balanced work life. To function well with others and within your organization, you need to be aware of those around you, and in tune with what their needs are. Being yourself doesn’t mean everything is about you.
You should also remain focused on improving and learning. Being yourself doesn’t mean stagnating. On the contrary, it means constant discovery about yourself, and how you interact with others and your environment.
Employers have a responsibility
While the emphasis of this article is on the individual, employers must adopt attitudes and practices that actually make it possible for employees to be their full selves in the workplace. Here are four things to think about:
- Create the right conditions: Start by understanding how your organization creates an environment of psychological safety for your employees. According to Harvard Business School researcher, Amy Edmondson, psychological safety “describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.” In other words, do you make it easy for people to be vulnerable and take risks? Or do you cause people to be guarded and nervous of contributing? If you’re unsure, these seven tips might help.
- You need to be yourself too: If you’re asking people to be themselves, you—as an organization—need to take the same medicine. Do you have self-awareness about what your purpose is, what your values are, and the nature of your culture? And do you walk the talk about who you are? Or are you projecting one persona, while your true nature is something completely different? This advice from Laurie Bennett, founding partner of Within People, should help you think about who you are.
- It starts with leaders: A culture of openness and willingness to be vulnerable likely won’t start at the grassroots in your organization. Your leaders have a critical role to play to set an example. They must be authentic and show genuine interest in welcoming others as they are. If you think your leaders are struggling to engage in this way, consider training focused on self-awareness and empathy or raise this with your manager or team leader.
- Act like you want people to stay: Mercer recently analyzed data from over five million employees working in 149 organizations and 172 countries. They found that “a strong sense of belonging and support for wellness are highly correlated with employee commitment and intention to stay.” Creating an open, accepting workplace, where employees can be themselves, builds both a sense of belonging and wellness (both physical and mental). If you want your people to stay, and to contribute deeply to your organization and your goals, help them be themselves. Technology that creates context, connection, and culture is a good way to start.
Admittedly, this is a sensitive topic. It’s also a state of mind that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. From our earliest years, society coaches us into hiding our emotions and compartmentalizing who we are. However, in this age of increasing emphasis on the humanization of workplaces and employee experience, it’s impossible to overlook the importance of being yourself—as an individual, and as an organization.