There has been a lot of talk lately about bringing your authentic self to the workplace. This trend is rooted in good intentions. It requires energy when, for whatever reason, we have to be mindful about regulating some facet of our identity. Accordingly, easing this burden makes sense. And although the idea of allowing everyone to express themselves freely is grounded in good intention, often in the workplace, this practice can lead to unintended consequences. To be clear, this is exclusive of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts that are long overdue. DEI initiatives, when done well, create and help maintain work environments that are safe and inclusive for all. Here we’re talking about something a bit different.
Our well-being is supported when we feel a positive sense of autonomy, competence, and a feeling of connection that aligns with our identity. Since most of us spend a significant portion of our waking hours on work-related tasks, these core needs are either met or not met at work. Given that living in alignment with our identity is important, what are some important things to consider to be as authentic as possible at work?
It’s natural to want to develop a relationship with our colleagues, but the workplace is not always a well-suited environment for intimate rapport. Research professor Brené Brown introduced the idea of “floodlighting,” the act of oversharing personal details with individuals who aren’t ready for it.
Unfortunately, this type of authenticity and vulnerability often has consequences. When our colleagues aren’t ready to hear intimate details of our life, they can shut down to protect themselves from the dissonance of not feeling empathy or a lack of connection to what has been thrust upon them. Ultimately this puts strain on working relationships and ends up being harmful to both you and your coworkers.
To support a safe work environment, a good practice is to avoid oversharing at work. This isn’t to imply you cannot develop friendships at work, but at a minimum, check in with your colleagues that they feel comfortable and have the mental space to discuss personal topics that are not work-related.
Another important consideration about authenticity at work is the power dynamic of the majority. It is important to celebrate our differences, and numerous studies support that a diverse workforce sets up an organization to be successful. However, minority groups—whether that’s gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity—face the burden of potentially having to conform to the social norms of the majority. Or, conversely, minority groups are often “voluntold” to openly share their perspective for company-led diversity events, feeling obligated to share painful memories and relive the trauma. Without perspective, the majority feels like they’re helping people be “seen,” but in reality, they’re doing harm. Worse, these “opportunities” to share are usually in the form of extra, unpaid work.
We should all strive to be inclusive and support diversity, but for employees’ mental health, understand that there is a difference between who a person is at work versus outside of work. Everyone should feel safe at work, but unfortunately, many workplaces have yet to achieve this ideal.
Authentically happy outside of work
So if authenticity at work is problematic, what’s a better alternative? Rather than using the workplace as a forum for self-expression, a helpful strategy is shifting that energy to helping employees end the workday on time. This empowers employees to feel energized in accomplishing their common work goals and frees up time to be their authentic selves outside of work.
Perhaps autonomy, not authenticity, is a better attitude to support at work. When we have greater control over our work, we’re healthier; we’re more motivated and less likely to be drained of energy and inspiration. Instead of using energy toward outward expression, tailor how work can specifically support your identity. Start by asking yourself a couple of questions:
Do I feel a sense of autonomy and control over my workday?
Am I aptly applying my authentic skills and talents? Why or why not?
Autonomy, boundaries, and psychological safety support a safe work environment. Authenticity is important, but a tempered approach that supports inclusiveness and emotional safety for all is warranted in the workplace. So instead of overly worrying about being authentic, a better approach is being intentional about how we can support one another at work, based on our common goals. This approach supports the energy and freedom needed outside of work to explore our self-awareness on fertile ground and live our best authentic lives on our own terms.