Who are you at work? Why being the real you is vital for success.
Updated: Apr 27
Do you take the real you to work, or do you wear a mask to fit in better?
I have been reading and listening around the topic of belonging lately, and it got me thinking about the importance of belonging, but also how this sits with the topic of identity – who we are, really.
The need to belong is primal. Humans are societal creatures - we need other people, even the most introverted amongst us. There is a wealth of research out there on the negative effects of isolation and loneliness – topics that really came into mainstream conversation during and following the pandemic. Similarly, there is research showing the positive impact of active and supportive community for our personal and business wellbeing.
Having that sense of belonging therefore in our workplace is a huge driver in our levels of motivation, job satisfaction, sense of purpose and our fulfilment. We know when we truly have it, we feel we fit, that we have found our tribe. I’ve certainly experienced this personally in my career, both in my corporate roles and perhaps more viscerally in the entrepreneurial space. It’s a wonderful sense of being a part of something bigger; a team moving in a shared direction, with a shared – albeit often multiple stranded purpose.
When I compare those hazy summer times to the times when I have conversely felt so utterly out of place, so alien in my environment, an outsider, a minority, unaccepted – effectively alone in a team; then the impact is stark. When we feel alienated from the group – when we don’t feel that belonging, then everything suffers. Individually we struggle as we try to wrestle with our very biology that imprints on us the need for the community we are currently lacking. Productivity, motivation, self-worth, confidence, decision making, efficiency, attitude to risk, anxiety, sleep… everything, literally everything, in all aspects of our lives is negatively impacted to a greater or lesser degree. And over time, if the situation remains unchanged, we can start to experience longer term health issues, all of which naturally cycle back into a vicious circle.
Fitting in at all costs?
Does the need to belong mean then that we should strive to fit in? That we should blend, tweak, mould, contort, change – pretend to be someone else in order to fit? No, I don’t believe that is a solution either. There will always be an element of ‘filter’ perhaps – I don’t believe sharing everything of ourselves at work is needed or wanted.
Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. Brené Brown.
And belonging isn’t fitting in. Belonging comes from our ability to be who we really are, consciously boundaried, and be accepted into the group as such. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘our authentic self’ as it may have some making that sicky sound – I can be a bit saccharine – but really, it’s what we all want. For us to be us, no mask, and to belong. Because wearing a mask is exhausting – it takes so much energy to keep up the performance. Imagine what we could do if that energy were available to us.
…fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. Brené Brown
Or in other words:
Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. Oscar Wilde
Do you know who you are?
So, if we agree that being who we are and belonging is the goal, then my natural follow-on question is do you know who you are? And it’s not a dumb as it may seem. It was a stark revelation of my own that I didn’t. When I started working on my own personal and professional development in earnest, when I started working with a coach, it was a shock to appreciate that I had lost sight of me.
Simple enquiries about what I enjoyed, what motivated me, what was important to me were very difficult to answer. My identity had become so enmeshed with my job that I found it hard to separate it from me. To complicate matters, I had been wearing a disguise to work – and it was this that was driving my sense of disorientation and dissatisfaction. The version of me that ‘belonged’ wasn’t the real me, not entirely, and to be the real me, I had to first discover who that was.
How do I find out who I am?
A most valuable tool came to me via a team building event some years ago. It was prework to the event and I remember feeling rather resentful that I had to do it, based on the fact I was so flat out (my modus operandum). I left it to the night before (classic) and intended to bash it out as quickly as possible – strangely at odds with normal perfectionist behaviour! Ah, maybe the perfectionist prevailed because I spent hours on it – hours! Finishing up well past my bedtime. In fact, I know it wasn’t my perfectionist at play, in fact it was purely that I enjoyed myself. The exercise led me on a voyage of discovery – the task was to share ourselves with the team – what happened first was me sharing myself with me.
I use that same exercise now with clients when they similarly can’t articulate who they are. When their job fills the space and sometimes creates their mask. I’m sharing it here for you to try. I did mine with pictures because images are powerful for me. That meant hunting back through old photos and pinching pics off the internet; but it wors just as well with doodles and with words. It’s the reflection that is key, and then having something tangible where you have captured your thoughts.
Then we get to play, gather information and experiment. When we know who we are, then we are at choice. We can choose to show our real (authentic!) selves at work. We get to take off the mask.
The relief I felt when I got to this place was palpable. No, it was not easy and no I didn’t change overnight. I chose small increments because it felt safer and more manageable for me. That doesn’t make it the right way, just my way. But gradually I was able to say more of what I really thought and believed; I was able to challenge decisions that I didn’t agree with; I was able to champion people and causes that I cared for deeply. And feedback showed it was noticed and appreciated – I was labelled more confident, more assertive, more decisive, nicer to be around, less uptight (yes really), happier… it goes on. For me personally I felt like I didn’t need to be so serious and sensible, so yeah I loosened up and my do I work better when I’m there!
And if we find we don’t belong when we are being the real us? Well, there you go – then you get to choose again. What do you want to do about that?
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Who do I work with?
I work with individuals, teams and organisations, helping them become more self-aware so that they can appreciate choice and make decisions to change with confidence.
My one-to-one clients have a corporate career which, often, is not currently satisfying them. They often don’t know why, because it used to, or because it looks great on the surface. I help them figure out what’s getting in their way and where they want to go next.
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Harvard Business Review
Being Human Podcast Episode 3 :Belonging: Why does fitting in feel good?