Owning Y-O-U on the J-O-B: Thoughts on Being Your Authentic Self at Work

In this third post of Figure You Out February, we’re talking about how to remain true to your authentic self when it may not be accepted at work. By “authentic self,” I mean the person who you are to yourself, which may or may not be the same person you are to others. The ideas of authentic self and self-identity are very closely related, and both describe the ways that individuals define themselves and carry themselves based on these definitions. This post is way less ‘how-to’ than other posts in this series, since authenticity and self-identity are difficult to generalize. Rather, I’m giving ideas and strategies that have worked for me, since being my authentic self has both helped and hindered my career.

(Super important aside: A large part of my authentic self is tied to my intersectional racial and gender identity, but this is not always the case. For some people, their authentic selves are more related to personal or personality characteristics than to socially constructed labels. As I’ve both stated and implied in posts one and two of FYOF, the way you chose to be Y-O-U is more important than anything. So if my personal examples don’t resonate with you, substitute them with ones that do.)

Aaannd we’re back.

The idea of performance and authenticity go together in my mind because of the culture that I grew up in. In my formative years, the worst thing someone could call you was fake. Even now, no one likes to the suggestion that they are acting in any way but one that is ‘real’. (Evidence: Any Real Housewives show ever.) I see this in performances of my (Black American) culture all the time. 50 Cent was shot 9 times and used it as an example of his “realness.” The whole Drake/Meek Mill fight about ghostwriting is one of authenticity. Even Beyonce’s embrace of her identity through performance is seen as controversial. The hullabaloo about Queen Bey’s Super Bowl 50 performance was my inspiration for this post because it speaks directly to the idea that it is hard for people from historically marginalized groups to be themselves at work without backlash from others.

While I am by no means Beyonce (sad face), I have plenty of experience with feeling pressured to subsume my thoughts, feelings, and opinions – my authentic self – as I navigate professional spaces. As a Black woman who worked in predominately white institutions for the majority of my career, this was my reality every single day until I started working for myself. Having to code switch for 40+ hours per week is quite exhausting, and it’s hard to maintain the facade when coworkers say or do things that are offensive. I like to think that I spoke up more often than not, but there was always an acute dilemma when such situations presented themselves: Do I risk the hostility that comes with speaking up and calling out my colleagues? Or do I let it ride for the sake of keeping the peace, thus ensuring that such behavior continues unabated?

Often, the signals that your authentic self is not welcome in the workplace are quite subtle. I can count on my fingers and toes the amount of times bosses have made off comments about Black people in general (or Black women in particular) that were stated in the same matter-of-fact nature as one would say that the sky is blue. I can also count on my fingers and toes that amount of times have been in professional spaces where I was the only Black woman who wasn’t a secretary or on the custodial staff. Such things are indicative of a hostile climate for my authentic self, and always made me hyper-aware of my every move.

Such hyper vigilance is not healthy! Why can’t I (and anyone who is of an identity that is often marginalized) be myself at work? Instead of others becoming more accepting, we are expected to code switch and subsume our authentic selves in order to be accepted. This isn’t fair, and also begs the question: How can you stay true to your authentic self when others may not appreciate it?

There is definitely a debate about authenticity and code switching among communities where such practices are role modeled for kids as a way to survive. The ‘yes’ folks believe that being at work is about being at work, not about being yourself. If you’re professional at all times, you’ll be fine. On the other hand, the ‘no’ folks believe that you should #keepit100 all the time because it’s not your fault that others may be uncomfortable with your identity. My take: I err on the side of ‘no’ because the arguments of the ‘yes’ crowd feel very ‘respectability politics’ to me, and that’s not my style. I strongly believe that you should be your authentic self in all situations, but it is also important to be mindful of your surroundings so that it doesn’t end up harming your career.

With that in mind, here are my top 3 tips for how to be your authentic self in your workplace without compromising your integrity.

1. Know your surroundings and your allies.
Consider your workplace in terms of both the individuals in it and the culture that surrounds it. Who are the people who will support you no matter what, and who are the ones who probably won’t ‘get’ you? What are the norms of the office, and the history behind them? This information will help you understand what situations your authentic self can best fit into and which ones where it might be better to fall back a bit. If you have a meeting where there are colleagues who have your back, that could be a safe space to be you. On the flipside, if you’re presenting to a group of people who could be hostile it might be better to be as close to the norm as possible so that you save yourself some grief. (Note: This won’t always save you grief, especially if the audience is going to hostile regardless of the message, but it could help.)

2. Pick your battles but don’t be afraid to speak up when necessary.
Every affront to your identity doesn’t require a response, so don’t waste your energy confronting every little thing that happens to you. This will burn you out, and could make it more challenging to do the actual work aspects of your job. Instead, pick your battles. If it’s a situation that only makes you do the Larry WiImore confused face, it might be best to keep it moving. If you feel particularly aggrieved, say something… and be confident and clear about why the situation was worthy of a response. If your workplace is particularly hostile to someone of your identities (of just very ill-informed), you may have to be what I call ‘microaggression sherpa’ and do some education around why you are upset. (In my personal experience, the more subtle the affront, the more education you’ll have to do. When someone called my Asian students “Orientals”, there was swift action. When I was called “sassy”, I had to break it down to Lego-sized basics before an apology was issued.)

3. Remain vigilant.
Even if you follow the above advice and try to remain true to both your authentic self and your surroundings, you can still run into issues because you can’t predict how others will act. Sometimes, your very presence will be a problem so regardless of how inoffensive you try to be, someone will be offended by your existence in what they presume is ’their’ space. You’re not supposed to be there, and that’s that. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to avoid this. However, if you are vigilant you can often see things happening and respond accordingly. Rally your allies, stay on your toes, and be ready for anything.

The space to be authentic at work is one of my top career values because it is easiest to be myself than to be anyone else. I do my best work when I’m not under the mental pressure to conform. (Plus, I really like me.) The prospect of having compromise too much of me for the comfort of others is not work a paycheck. Also, there is a historical component to it. Black women have always had to deal with others’ impressions of how we should behave and what our opinions should be, in both personal and professional contexts. We’ve had to fight to have our work recognized and our voices heard. I wouldn’t be where I am without the strong shoulders upon which I stand. As such, my insistence on being my authentic self is as much a tribute to my ancestors than anything else.

But that’s just me and my opinion – you need to decide these things for yourself. You need to figure out how much of yourself (if any of yourself) you are willing to compromise in order to reach your professional goals. Think critically about who you are, what parts of your authentic self are most important to you, and which parts you are okay with putting way while you’re at work. If you want, you can modify the Ten Day Work Journal to document your experiences with working authentically.

Authenticity is important to career development because, even if you don’t need to be Y-O-U and your J-O-B, you should have a clear understanding of why that is and what its implications are.

About

Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.