How to be your authentic self at work, according to a career coach

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There’s immense power in being authentic, but bringing your true self to work isn’t always easy. We speak to a career coach to find out how to show up without compromising our identity, and hear AJ Odudu’s inspiring story of how she stood strong by not changing who she is to be successful…

How do you present yourself at work? Do you opt for a power suit in important meetings? Make a conscious effort to assert yourself in emails to your boss? Chances are, you probably pride yourself on putting in a lot of thought. But how we present ourselves at work is about much more than our aesthetic or conversational style. 

Bringing your “whole self” to work, as the cultural dialogue goes, is now the thing we’re all being encouraged to embrace. That constitutes a range of things, from having genuine interactions and sharing divergent opinions, to behaving in a way that feels natural to you. It’s not just a buzzword, either: according to a study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, being authentic can also make you happier and more productive.

But while it’s a wonderful concept, being authentic at work isn’t always easy. There are multiple aspects to our identities, and we don’t always feel comfortable expressing them, especially if we’re dealing with less inclusive workplaces. Just as being open about our identities at work can help us thrive, feeling as though we have to suppress key parts in order to fit in can have a serious cost, giving rise to issues like low intrusive thoughts, distractibility and even burnout. 

One woman who knows exactly what it feels like to be told to compartmentalise herself is AJ Odudu. In the latest episode of the Stylist podcast Nobody Told Me (which you can listen to below), the TV presenter, radio DJ and fitness blogger discusses how she was made to feel like she should change her accent to fit into her world of work, and how she gradually learnt to show up as her true self on the job. 

But authenticity isn’t just an abstract phrase, it’s something that has to be actively nurtured. So, we sat down with career, leadership and culture coach Sarah Clarke to find out how we can all do better at bringing our whole selves to work if ‘work you’ and ‘after-work’ feel like two completely different people. 

“Every organisation has its own unique culture. A specific set of behaviours and values that determine ‘how we do things around here’. The more time we spend in these environments, playing by their ‘rules’, the more our own internal moral compass can be sent out of alignment. 

“We may start behaving in a such a way that we think will make us successful in that specific environment. We strive to fit in. Play the game.

“We’ve all done it, but the price we pay can be a loss of certain parts of our own professional identity. Who we are, what we stand for and what we truly want out of our work lives. 

“The trick is to take a step back and boost our self-awareness by reconnecting with what’s really important to us – our values – and our unique value at work – our strengths.

“Our values are our ‘non-negotiables’. Our North Star, if you will. They allow us to reconnect with who we are and what we want out of our work lives. 

“Consider those life and work experiences that may have helped shape your values. What is your heritage? What challenges have you overcome in your life to date? Your innate strengths will be completely unique to you and determine your positive reputation at work. You on a good day. What people come to you for.”

“We often tell ourselves stories about how we ‘should’ behave at work. What success looks like. What we need to do to get ahead. Examples of such stories might be the fact that showing emotion or vulnerability will be seen as signs of weakness. Or that challenging someone in authority could be career-limiting.

“Very often these beliefs are unfounded and we can lose our sense of self - what we believe to be right or wrong - in the process.

“Look out for any such beliefs that might be limiting you and holding you back. Pay attention to your thoughts. Any such thoughts that feature the words ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘can’t’ or ‘never’ often benefit from further investigation. What evidence is there that your belief or concern is 100% valid?

“When we’re not being authentic at work we will tend to behave or act out of alignment with our core values. Our walk won’t match our talk. We may come across as disingenuous and fake. It can also feel physically uncomfortable being inauthentic at work and you may actually feel it viscerally in your body. You may notice your heart rate increase, your mouth go dry and your voice sound weaker as the stress hormone, cortisol, floods your system.

“This happens as your brain puts your body on high alert as it starts to sense something is awry. When your gut tells you something’s not right, the chances are it’s on the money. You’re probably not being true to your best authentic self.”

“Being your authentic self at work is often easier when you’re working with people who share even a few of your core values. They’ll tend to believe what you believe. Values are often referred to as ‘team glue’ for this very reason.

“A great way to share what you stand for and give other a glimpse into your authentic self is through story-telling. Start with opening up to trusted colleagues about what’s important to you and what you value. Over time, this narrative will help build your personal brand and profile at work. If you’re intentional, you can shape how other people see you.

“Sharing common values with others doesn’t mean that you’ll always see eye to eye, but it does mean you are less likely to find yourself in as many situations of conflict. Conflict is a part of life and avoiding it all costs won’t do you any favours. If conflict does arise, take the time to listen without judgement and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Play the detective and try to empathise with their point of view.

“By showing an interest in why they have a different opinion, you can often diffuse an otherwise awkward situation; perhaps agreeing to disagree or meet halfway. It’s possible to stand up for what you believe in without the situation becoming confrontational.”

“If our values give us clues as to what is important to us, then we need to do what we can to ring-fence and protect them. The way we can do this is with boundaries.

“By communicating calmly and clearly what our boundaries are to others, we stand a better chance of getting what we need in the long run.

“As soon as you allow a behaviour that you deem to be unacceptable to go unchecked, you are implicitly giving off signals to the other person that their actions are OK. By explaining to the individual calmly and objectively how their actions or behaviour made you feel, you are clarifying to them what your boundaries are and being true to your authentic self.”

“When employees feel empowered to share their true selves and opinions at work with no fear of reprimand, a culture of psychological safety prevails. There are enormous benefits across the board for such a culture.

“As employees, we all play an important role in communicating our expectations around diversity too. For example, when it comes to recruitment or internal promotion, we can call out any overt lack of inclusiveness that we observe. This is more likely to happen when there is a culture of psychological safety.

“It is all our responsibility to hold both our management and peers to account. If we observe discrimination of any kind, we need to speak out. Organisations adopting a zero tolerance policy around discrimination of any kind can help underrepresented groups feel supported.

“If an individual ever feels the need to suppress parts of their identity to fit in, confiding in a trusted colleague or member of HR should be their first port of call. It’s so important that organisations and managers are being proactive in offering support for underrepresented groups. Informal internal networks and mentoring can also be invaluable initiatives.”

Nobody Told Me… is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.