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Careers advice: is there really any benefit to a work persona? A psychologist reveals all

Adopting a work persona may seem like a smart call, but experts say things are changing – and fast.

When I became a manager for the first time, the one piece of career advice I kept being given was this: adopt a work persona and improve my “executive presence”. 

While I chose not to lean into a whole new character for the workplace, I did find myself acting differently to how I would at home – which might explain why one of my colleagues once described me as “calm, focused, and cool headed” in spite of my family and friends insisting that I’m “the Phoebe Buffay of the group.”

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Over the years, I’ve changed my approach; I crack more jokes, sing my heart out at office karaoke, and let myself get the tiniest bit over competitive in the annual Christmas desk decorating competition (our gingerbread houses should have won, damn it!). 

Essentially, though, I still attempt to project an air of professionalism and capability when working alongside my colleagues. And, when I’m at home, I dial things back and settle back into my ditzy, clumsy, sloppy self – kind of like shrugging off office clothes in favour of comfy sweats, y’know?

I suppose, then, that mine is a very mild version of a work persona. Because others, according to Forbes’ John Rex, tend to “embrace a sort of caricature they believe others prefer.” 

Low angle view of woman standing behind glass, drawings and adhesive notes, solution, direction, guidance
Adopting a work persona may have once been the done thing, but things are changing.

“These personas are often stereotypical: the hard-nosed sceptic, the go-getter, the people pleaser, and so on,” Rex explains, adding that these enforced roles don’t just have the potential to be limiting; they can cause your colleagues to perceive you as phony, too.

Of course, there has to be some sort of middle ground; we can’t be our sweariest, messiest, silliest selves in the workplace – just as we can’t spend our working weeks play-acting (if anything, it’d be exhausting). 

So, what’s the solution?

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In a bid to find out, I sat down with mental health campaigner and TV & radio broadcaster, Neev Spencer, for a chat about work personas. Here’s what she had to say.

What is a work persona?

“Our work and home personas are the two personalities that make up our daily lives,” says Spencer.

“Without even being aware of it, you may live in two different abodes within yourself each day. At work you are organised, in control and professional – or, at least, this is what you aim to project. At home, though, you may be far from those things.”

Who is most likely to adopt a work persona?

“People who need to project a confident work persona often have high pressure jobs, which means that they need to seem effortlessly in control, leading and paving the way,” says Spencer.

“Transitioning from the ‘you’ that you adopt at this high pressure job, to the ‘you’ that walks through the door at home to an eager family with varying needs, is an active subconscious effort. Going from leader to loving partner takes a flow that not all of us can easily go with.”

Colleague pinning up work for brainstorm
“If companies were more open to promoting a work life balance, we would feel less inclined to be these two very different versions of ourselves,” says Neev Spencer.

And why do some people prefer not to?

“For those who don’t have a work persona and somehow seamlessly manage to bounce from one to the other, your job probably plays a big part in this,” notes Spencer.

“Working in the world of music and entertainment, or more ‘fun’ creative positions, allows you to be your ‘true self’ across the board more often. Being able to be yourself at work comes from a line of employment that is based on who you are rather than what you can do. A more playful environment allows for more expressive behaviours within the workplace, therefore allowing you to be more at ease and a true reflection of yourself.

“However, not all of us get to work at the Google or YouTube offices sliding down a multicoloured play area into our office seat, so finding that type of atmosphere may not be easy.”

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How has lockdown and working from home shifted things?

“‘Switching off’ from work mentally is an exercise that we all need more practise on,” says Spencer, “and, with the current lifestyle situation of 24/7 interactions and being able to be contacted at any time of the day, we feel the pressure of needing to be available at all times.

“If you don’t check that work email will you miss something important, or what if everyone else on the team is waiting for you to do something? Needless to say it’s hard to put that phone away and ease into your home life.”

What are the setbacks to adopting a work persona?

Spencer explains: “Juggling different identities can be time consuming and at times emotionally draining – and, when we separate ourselves and our lives, we tend to lose the grounding we need in order to follow our moral compass.

“If companies were more open to promoting a work life balance, we would feel less inclined to be these two very different versions of ourselves.”

She continues: “The real dilemma that comes from actively maintaining two personas is that you dilute the best parts of yourself, which in turn impacts how you can move forward in work because you aren’t giving your full self to any given situation.”

Businesswoman leading informal meeting with colleagues at office workstation
To truly succeed in our careers, we need to strike a balance between our work and home personas.

So, to work persona or not to work persona?

Writing for Forbes, Rex says “the answer to this dilemma is learning to leverage range. That is, bringing out the aspects of your personality that are most useful at the right moments.

“For example, you might use humour to diffuse tense situations. You can share your point of view when someone stomps on cherished values. Or assume a beginner’s mindset when you realise you don’t have all the answers.”

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Spencer agrees with this read, adding: “As humans we are always made to believe that our emotions can set us back in the big world of work, but the reality is that vulnerability shows true strength.

“And, with this welcomed shift in society’s attitude to mental health, stigmas are more understood and acceptance for wellbeing within the workplace is prioritised, paving the way for a better environment for our futures within our home life and our work life.”

Perhaps the easiest solution, then, is for us all to tune into our core values. Because, as Rex notes, “the clearer you see your own values, the better you can apply them to choose your behaviour in any situation.”

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