How To Be Authentic At Work (5 Steps)

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How To Be Authentic At Work

I had a catch-up with one of my mentees recently. We met at a local café and talked about the state of the world for a while. If anything, the recent pandemic is always a great conversation starter… 

Then we switched gear and talked about her satisfaction at work. 

She has always set clear boundaries between work life and personal life. At work, she is a different person to who she is with her family and friends. Very professional, she doesn’t share personal stories and instead focuses on getting the job done. 

She is fantastic at that. Her track record is impeccable. 

Being naturally guarded and shy, she created a persona to protect herself and avoid feeling exposed.

Yet after two years in her current role, she feels like something is missing. Her colleagues keep their distances. She is not sure who to talk to about career progression and opportunities. And generally, she is starting to dread going to work.

We went back and forth for a while, trying to understand what was holding her back, but the conversation kept coming back to the same topic: being authentic at work.

In her own words, having a different persona at work was starting to create dissonance with her true self. She was resenting the person others saw at work. But where to go from there? 

Our meeting was intense. And for days, I have been reflecting on authenticity. 

Is it a buzzword? Or is it worth exploring? 

What does being authentic at work mean? Why does it matter? And how to get there?

In this post, I share my thoughts on authenticity at work. It is very personal and open for discussion, of course, but I hope it helps on the journey to being your true self.

What Is Authenticity?

how to be authentic at work

According to the Cambridge dictionary, authenticity is the quality of being true

Wikipedia defines authenticity as the degree to which a person’s actions are congruent with his or her beliefs and desires, despite external pressures to conformity.

I think author Brené Brown absolutely nailed the definition of authenticity in her book Gifts of Imperfection: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let out true selves be seen.”

Why Being Authentic At Work Matters

Authenticity at work has been a huge topic in the last decade and the trend is not reversing as employers put emphasis on employee satisfaction now more than ever.

But why does it matter? 

To me, authenticity is a matter of integrity. By being authentic at work, you live by your values and principles consistently. 

This is important in order to find balance

Creating a work persona might seem like a great way to separate work life from home life. In reality, you are creating conflicts within yourself, soon leading to stress and mental fatigue.

These conflicts will also damage your self-esteem: how are you supposed to be confident if you don’t act in accordance with your real values?

By creating an alternative version of yourself at work, you won’t be able to build meaningful relationships. No-one will be able to know the real you. That’s fine if you don’t want to engage with colleagues. But as ambitious professionals, you need to know that genuine relationships are crucial to career success.

Last but not least, leaders projecting polished images of themselves do not win hearts. Nowadays, people crave and respond to authenticity. They want to know who is leading them, including their flaws and weaknesses. 

Our vulnerabilities make us real. Don’t hide them.

>>> RELATED: 9 Ways To Be Happy At Work

How To Be Authentic At Work?

Know That It Is A Long Term Goal

how to be authentic at work

The first step to becoming more authentic is to accept that it will not happen overnight. 

Awareness is key. 

By recognising that you have a different persona at work, you are opening yourself to change. Authenticity is something to cultivate. Not a destination but a journey. 

It’s also important to understand that being authentic doesn’t mean you have to figure out exactly who you are. Knowing oneself can take a lifetime.

Being authentic means being aware of the journey without the pressure of having to be all-knowing.

Build Your Personal Brand

Actively working on your personal brand to be more authentic might seem contradictory. It’s quite the opposite actually…

Personal branding is not about being fake. It’s about exploiting your own story, who you really are, and projecting it so that people know the real you, your values and your unique selling point. 

The stories we chose to tell others about ourselves should communicate our values, convictions, strengths and goals.

Sharing personal stories makes us more human and helps establish trust and empathy within a team. However, and this is especially true for leaders, being authentic doesn’t mean sharing carelessly. It’s about getting it right. You can be true and genuine at work, you just need to read the room. Sense the tone. It might not be the right time or the right forum.

Find your own version of authenticity: what do you want people to remember you for?

Develop Your Listening Skills

how to be authentic at work

Authentic listening is essential to being your true self though rarely seen a priority…

How often, in a conversation, have you caught yourself lost in your own thoughts? How do you feel, then, when you are expected to respond? Sure, you can make something up on the spot. It’ll get you out of trouble. But it will certainly not cultivate your authenticity…

Giving colleagues your full attention in a conversation allows you to respond from your authentic self.

Most importantly, as a leader, being an authentic listener will set you well ahead of the competition.

For a place to start, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I’ve only read it last year though the book was originally published in 1936. The message is strikingly relevant to our generation…

Admit When You’re Wrong

The cornerstone of authenticity is vulnerability. You cannot be authentic if you constantly hide your mistakes.

This is the most difficult step to take if you have built a reputation on your (perceived) ability to always be right. And more so as a leader.

Think about it. Who would you rather trust: the person who hides when they’re wrong and pretend everything is OK, or the person who takes responsibility for their mistakes with a plan to correct them?

It does involve stepping outside your comfort zone and “exposing” yourself, but the results are astonishing.

Here’s an example. In a previous role, I approved a payment with an extra zero by mistake and realised the error after the money left our accounts. I could have handled it quietly with the vendor. But instead, I sent an email to the whole FInance team explaining my mistake, how it happened and steps to take to avoid it in the future.

Very uncomfortable but this helped establishing my position as an authentic leader.

Don’t hide. Acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them. Help others learn from them. And move on, you’re only human!

Embrace Feedback, Give Feedback

When we’re authentic, we are more vulnerable. And feedback is even harder to receive.

Remember that being authentic at work involves striking the right balance in what you share and what you don’t to support your real values, goals and principles.

And because it is a balancing exercise, it can be tweaked. To be the best version of yourself, open yourself to feedback without taking it personally.

The opposite is also true: being authentic means giving valuable feedback to others in line with your values.

A great way to keep your authenticity in check as you climb the career ladder is reverse mentoring, where you learn for junior colleagues.

In Conclusion…

As I said at the start, this is a very personal topic. Authenticity will mean different things to different people.

It can be “easier said than done” in work cultures hindering the expression of oneself (but remember, no one is forcing you to stay there!).

What is important is knowing what works for you and what you are aiming for.

What does being authentic at work mean to you? What steps do you take to get there?

Let me know in the comments!

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