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Do you need to be authentic?

Updated: May 21, 2021

A lot of messaging in inclusion and diversity includes the goal of being able to bring our authentic selves to work.

The push for the authentic self at work (also referred to as bringing our full selves, or true selves) is aimed at reducing the need for covering and its associated emotional and productivity costs.

The reality is that we show up differently in different contexts all the time - our friends see a different version of us than our family; our partner sees us in a way that few others will; and we have a work version of ourselves that we share with our colleagues.

There’s a lot that’s good in those choices, and not just for reasons of self-protection from judgement or interference. Often we connect differently with different audiences to explore aspects of our personality, or to try out changes in approach. Or maybe we just like some privacy.

The downside is more about when we have to work to suppress parts of us that are relevant to that situation or relationship.

If you feel you have to hide your aspirations from your family for fear of judgement, it keeps you on constant defense so as to not let anything slip. If you don’t tell your friends about a relationship you’re in because you think they won’t approve, it’s exhausting to maintain an alternative story and you might start to find it easier to avoid those friends. If at work you feel pressure to not talk about your kids because your career priorities might be questioned, not only are you denying what’s important to you, you’re denying yourself opportunities to connect with others who share (or are interested in) your passions and drivers.

What if instead we focused on bringing our essential selves to whatever context or audience we have. And the definition of what is “essential” is dependent on two things: both you and the context. There might be essential parts that you want to bring to all contexts, and there are parts that might be more essential to specific contexts.

For myself, being a gay man is an essential part of who I am that definitely affects my family and friends and how I relate to them. The journey of self-acceptance is one of the most significant struggles in my life - the sort of thing that you need the support of family and friends for. However, for me, being gay didn’t seem especially relevant at work, so for a long time I avoided it as a topic there. Not necessarily because I thought I would be rejected or discriminated against, but more because I didn’t want to be stereotyped. Over time I realized that the less I talked about it, the more I left it for people to fill in the blanks - and to rely on stereotypes to do so. I also realized that it was connected to some of my positive contributions at work: the desire for fairness, a development mindset, and a willingness to explore different perspectives. So being gay is now, for me, an essential part of who I am at work, and it’s important that I feel comfortable in bringing that part of me to a work context.

We can and we should make our own choices about what is essential to bring to any context. Sure, my “authentic self” would prefer to just throw on a t-shirt every day, but wearing a button-down is not a performance-limiting effort if that is the expectation in the office, so wearing a t-shirt is not essential to me, nor do I feel inauthentic by wearing a shirt. Likewise, I would prefer to choose whatever work hours I want, but I understand that collaboration is essential to my work and that means being consistently available to others.

So what is the essential self then versus the authentic self?

It’s what’s needed, called for, necessary or important in any given context. And it's what is important for you within that context. It’s the essential skills in your job description, AND also the personal aspects of you that inform your perspectives, make you a better team member and a better contributor. It’s also essential to you if your efforts to suppress or withhold it in a given environment are draining or de-motivating.

I’m not against authenticity. It’s something I strive for in my relationships, and it’s something that I think will always be just out of reach, because self-awareness is a lifelong discovery journey.

For me, thinking about the essential self (in a particular context) better reflects the dynamic relationships between us and the environments we operate in - the hard lines we choose, the compromises we make, and the aspirations we pursue.

What aspects of you have you discovered are essential to your contribution at work? Or in other environments?

[You can comment on this post on LinkedIn.]

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