Are you the real you at work?

How does it feel on Friday afternoon to walk out of work, shed your job skin and emerge as the real you? What about that moment on Monday morning where you take a deep breath outside of the office doors, put on your corporate skin and walk into the office, leaving your true self behind until Friday — or at least until the end of the workday? Why do we operate like this? Why do we feel the need to hide our true selves at work? What prevents us from being the same person we are in our real lives from the person we are at our jobs? And what price do we pay for that inauthenticity?

The price tag may be pretty high. And it all comes down to engagement.

Researchers Ralph van den Bosch and Toon W. Taris of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University talk about engagement in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

Engagement is a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. Rather than a momentary and specific state, engagement refers to a more persistent and pervasive affective-cognitive state… being strongly involved in one’s work and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge… fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work.

When we are not our whole selves, can we be fully engaged? How much energy do we need to expend to maintain our work selves? Dr. Anne WIlson in conjunction with Plasticity Labs conducted a survey of 213 employees to explore these questions. What they found is fascinating.

  • 75% said that they wanted their co-workers to share more of their true selves
  • 80% stated that authenticity improves the workplace
  • 90% of participants believe that authenticity in the workplace boosts productivity

What if we let down our guard? What if we showed up at work as ourselves? What if we stopped holding up a mask with one hand and dug into our work with everything we’ve got?

Thus far we have been examining authenticity from the perspective of the employee: Are you authentic at work? But there is another side to this. Have the leaders of your organization created a climate for authenticity? You may be perfectly willing to be authentic. You may even be hungering for that authenticity. You may feel the weight of hiding behind that mask. But you have a hypothesis, proven or unproven, that if you did show your true self that it would not be welcome. The culture would not be open to it. The introduction of your personal life would be seen as a distraction from your work.

In their groundbreaking book An Everyone Culture, Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan examine three Deliberately Developmental Organizations and look at what happens when the culture of an organization not only accepts but demands that every member of the community brings his or her full self to work. The results are staggering. And the benefits are clear and far-reaching:

  • Increases in profitability, improved employee retention, greater speed to promotability, greater frankness in communication, better error detection in operational and strategic design, more effective delegation, and enhanced accountability
  • Reductions in cost structures, political maneuvering, interdepartmental strife, employee downtime, and disengagement
  • Solutions to seemingly intractable problems, such as: how to convert the familiar team of leaders (each looking out for his own franchise) into the more valuable, but elusive, leadership team; how to anticipate crises no one in the company has experienced previously and to successfully manage through them; how to invent and realize future possibilities no one has experienced previously

As an individual, you can certainly experiment with how authentic you can be at work. But as an organizational leader, isn’t it worth considering what kind of climate you are providing for your people?

Let’s put this to the test.

Here’s your challenge: Observe your place of work. How authentic are you at work? If you are not fully authentic, what is stopping you? Is it a function of something in yourself or is it a function of the corporate culture? When your boss makes an error in judgement, how comfortable are you with pointing out that error in an effort to help your boss to improve? Does anyone ever tell you how you might improve? Write a journal entry about your observations every day for one week. See if it helps you to become more authentic at work. And see if that authenticity lifts a burden from your shoulders and allows you to focus on your work with your whole self.

I’d love to hear about what you learn. We at CultivateMe are fascinated with the way people work now, the way people wish they could work in the future and how we can build the bridge to the new world where learning and work are two parts of the same whole. Send me an email at

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