Authenticity is a big buzzword nowadays, both in and out of the workplace. But what does it even mean to be truly authentic? Merriam-Webster defines authenticity as “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character,” so it makes sense that we often hear the word tossed around with other buzzy phrases like “just be yourself!” Our culture is currently obsessed with authenticity, and while we should strive to be honest with our friends and family, I would argue that it’s not wise to be 100% authentic with everyone, especially in your place of work.
There are exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases, your work isn’t really about you, it’s about other people. At the end of the day, you’re working to serve the needs of customers or clients or business owners or all of the above. And since your work isn’t really about you, then being authentic at work is not as important as it is in your everyday life.
At work, you need to act with good manners and professionalism. That might mean biting your tongue in meetings or dressing in clothes that aren’t really “you.” You might not love wearing a pantsuit, but if you work in a law firm, then that’s probably what’s expected. You can take a little bit of creative liberty sometimes to put your own spin on expectations, but not if it means putting your own interests over those of the people you work with and for.
Being Authentic Doesn’t Mean Saying Whatever You Want
Another common misconception about authenticity is that it means you should have no filter and say exactly what you think and feel at any given time. In fact, it's a horrible idea. You should think before you speak.
It’s not inauthentic to put the needs of others over your own desires.
Taking the time to think before you speak means considering other people’s perspectives and how your words might affect those around you. It also means considering the fact that you might be wrong about something. Saying whatever you want pigeonholes you, because once you verbalize what’s on your mind, it’s much harder to distance yourself from that opinion if and when you change it
You should be honest, yes, but only after you’ve thought about what you’re going to say and made sure that it's what you actually think. And if what you think is going to offend your co-worker or cause drama or throw an unnecessary wrench in things, then consider whether it’s something you really need to say.
When I’m considering whether I should voice my disagreement with someone at work, I often ask myself: “Is this the hill I want to die on?” If speaking up doesn’t stand to benefit anyone or make a project better, then I’ll usually keep my mouth shut. That’s not inauthentic, though; it’s actually the considerate thing to do because you’re putting the needs of others above your own desires.
There Are Many Different Versions of the “Real You”
If you think about it, there are actually multiple different versions of the real you because you behave differently around different groups of people. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being less authentic, you simply have different relationships with professional colleagues than you do with others, and those relationships bring out different versions of yourself. You’re not inauthentic, you’re multifaceted.
Different relationships show us different sides of ourselves.
Even outside work, we act differently around different friends and family groups. You’re going to have a much closer relationship with very old friends and family members than you do with newer friends or people you don’t know as well, so it’s natural to have less of a filter around these groups. Again, that doesn’t mean you’re being less authentic with some people and more authentic with others; it simply means you have a different relationship with them, and that’s actually kind of beautiful.
Different relationships show us different sides of ourselves. If all you’re focused on is being 100% authentic all the time, then you don’t give yourself room to grow and change as a person. Instead of focusing on being authentic all the time, focus more on opening yourself up to new experiences and learning from others.
When I was doing research for this article, I came across a line in a Harvard Business Review article that perfectly summed up how to be authentic in the workplace: “Be yourself, but carefully.” So make the joke, give your honest opinion, and pitch that wild idea, but always be aware of the effect you’re having on those around you and err on the side of caution. If you think something you say or do might harm someone, then you need to reign it in, even at the risk of being inauthentic.
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