Get real: How to be your authentic self at work

By Rebecca Hourston, Women’s Leadership Coach and Managing Director at Talking Talent

Authentic leaders are needed now more than ever. Here’s how to actively work at being one.

Let me be frank: Of all the things that I know I should be doing to become a better leader, working on being more authentic is right at the bottom of the list.

I’ll be honest: It doesn’t even make the list. And it’s not because I don’t value authenticity.

Yet, a post-Covid world calls for more authentic and transparent leadership. And research continues to stress the primary importance of authenticity, with Harvard Business Review declaring “Authenticity as the gold standard for leadership.”

I’m an honest, genuine person. So do I really need to prioritise – above all else –  working at being ‘more real’? And is being ‘more authentic’ as important as being more inspiring, or a better public speaker, or developing the thousand other skills that would make me better at my job?

Obviously not. Or so I thought–until I started unpacking what ‘authenticity’ truly means. “Be yourself.”

But which self?

Imagine: the self you wake up as, the one who (usually) hits the snooze button and grumbles on the way to work; would that self be welcome at a job interview? Is the self skilled at entertaining children with nonsense for hours while covered in jam helpful during a high-profile presentation?

‘Be authentic’, much like ‘be yourself’, sounds like simple advice. But it also suggests that you have one true self, and that any self-editing or tailoring of your presentation is a deception. This is a problem, and as psychologist Carol Dweck has shown, the idea that you have one fixed and unalterable self can interfere with both personal and professional growth. Clinging to a single fixed and immovable self, for example, might make it difficult to interact with new people, or learn from important experiences.

That being said, your original, unedited self is wonderful, and the ability to disclose your hopes and fears in some scenarios, and feel accepted, is a crucial part of life.

But if somebody asked for advice before a corporate job interview, would you suggest that they walk in and tell their funniest story?

Of course not. You might say: ‘Tell them what they want to hear’, or, ‘Show yourself as the ideal candidate for the job.’ Does either piece of advice encourage ‘authentic’ behaviour?

Not exactly, but neither piece of advice encourages ‘false’ or dishonest behaviour either.

Telling someone to make something up in a job interview would be exceptionally poor advice. Telling someone to foreground relevant experience and omit embarrassing childhood stories is common sense.

The unadulterated truth is not always appropriate or helpful and may not show you in the best light. Being aware of this doesn’t make you less authentic. How you choose to present yourself in your professional life is a personal choice, as well as an expression of personality.

Self monitoring

Psychologist Mark Snyder identified two psychological profiles that determine the development of leaders’ personal styles, and in a sense, their measure of authenticity.

The “high self-monitors”: these people adapt to social cues constantly, adjusting their mode of self-expression without feeling fake.

The “low self-monitors”: these people say what they think and feel at all times. Their internal states inform their behaviour regardless of external circumstances.

Low self-monitors might see high self-monitors as fake or phony. High self-monitors might retaliate by judging low self-monitors as immature, or self-indulgent.

Neither judgement is fair, particularly because to judge either profile affects how we approach the question of authenticity for women. Women are more likely to be low self-monitors than men, which is problematic as research shows that high self-monitors receive significantly higher evaluations and more opportunities for leadership progression. 

So why does it happen?

Women receive more (and more insistent) social cues about how we should behave. We face stronger cultural pressures than men, and often feel pressurised to adapt our ways of speaking, our leadership styles, and the way in which we interact with other people. In order to succeed in male dominated environments, too many women are still told to behave more like men. 

As humans, we measure ourselves against external circumstances, and when we are told that we don’t fit in, we are likely to interpret this as not being ‘good enough.’ Given the frequency with which women receive this message, it’s no surprise that after assessing the criteria for success, we force ourselves to adapt.

However, when you try and change who you are, you risk losing the most important part of your authentic self: your values. If you deny your most important beliefs then you will inevitably limit your potential power and influence.

There’s a balance to be struck here–between being able to adapt to circumstances, and remaining true to yourself at your core.

Be your best self

Authenticity is appealing because we all like being reminded that nobody is perfect. In the UK, we’re notorious for bonding through self-depreciating humour and solidarity. Experts such as Professor Gareth Jones even advise selectively revealing weaknesses in order to connect with people.

Brené Brown, founder and CEO of The Daring Way, and creator of one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world, ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, defines authenticity as ‘the choice to let our true selves be seen.’

We all have a best self, and we all have a worst self. Choosing not to parade your most grumpy, insecure, critical self in pyjamas in public doesn’t mean that you lack authenticity. It means that you’re a grown up.

Authenticity is about ‘not being fake’–trying to become more like others isn’t a good idea because you will either end up a second-rate version of someone else, or in trying to emulate someone else, you will end up as an impoverished version of yourself.

The truth: being yourself is always enough. But if you’ve ever chaired a panel discussion as your grumpy, pre-caffeinated, bed-headed self then you’ll probably agree that although you are always enough, sometimes you can do better.

Behave as your best self

I’ve heard the word ‘authentic’ attached to: a relationship, an accent, a cup of coffee, a ‘real Italian’ pizza, a pair of jeans, a teenage girl dying her hair grey, and a ‘wellness experience.’

And it extends to the office; even more so since the global pandemic, as we’ve had a chance to experience our leaders in a new light. Being ‘authentic’ has been a buzz term since Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership popularised the term in 2003. At Harvard Business school, executive courses in ‘authentic leadership development’ are severely oversubscribed and expanding every year.

When we’re using the same word to talk about pizza, piercings, and great leaders, it’s easy to forget to think about what the word really means.

Oprah’s now famous quip (“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier”) makes it sound as if her authenticity is the sole reason for her success, and of course it isn’t. We probably wouldn’t admire Oprah’s authenticity so much if it wasn’t supported by her experience, knowledge, confidence, and empathy. Authenticity is not a static state you can achieve and then cash in on; it is always a work in progress. If you want to be authentic, you have to commit to the process of becoming your best self.

The authentic women I’m inspired by know what they want and what they don’t want; they know what makes them uncomfortable; they know their own strengths and respect their passions. They value their time. Authentic women choose to do what they love, and consistently commit to acting in keeping with their values.

What do you want?

To live authentically requires courage; self-respect; the ability to be honest with yourself, and to accept constructive feedback.

It’s one thing to be authentic when you’re relaxed, but when there’s external pressure to change, or sacrifice your principles (particularly if it advances your career) it gets significantly harder.

But, when you live authentically, you stand up for what you believe in, and in doing so you invest in your future power, happiness and influence.

So….

Prioritise: Learning experiences, self-reflection, listening to feedback

Commit: To your personal growth. Emotional intelligence (EQ) and Caring Intelligence (CQ) are crucial parts of authentic leadership, and developing your ability to self-monitor appropriately will allow you to communicate your thoughts and feelings as you choose. Not all thoughts are created equal, and self control is part of expression.

Grab a pen: Give yourself five minutes. Imagine that your most authentic self walks into the room and sits down opposite you. Remember that you can be your most authentic self at any time, as and when you see fit. How do they look? What do they want to say; What have they stopped themselves from saying? What do they want to do next?

Authentic leaders are needed now more than ever. Actively work at being one.

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