What Does it Mean to Be Authentic at Work?

“What do you need from me?”

That was the question I asked after a meeting where I shared some ideas that I thought could move the needle for the agency in terms of connecting with those we serve. I expected the response to be a to-do list and a deadline. I was thrown off-guard by the actual response.

“Keep being you.”

Wait. What? No action items? No work-product expectations? How was this direction supposed to be actionable? I can’t remember my response but it was likely something unintelligible that audibly displayed my confusion as I left the room.

This sent me off on a micro-crusade of self-reflection on what it means to be authentic at work; to “be you.”

Here are a few of the things that have been on my mind related to authenticity at work:

  1. We are not all the same. Each of our individual experiences in life and in work has shaped who we are and how we approach things. Sure, there may be overlap in our thought processes, but ultimately we don’t think exactly like anyone with whom we work. Being authentic at work means that we recognize, and even celebrate, our differences and work to find those common-ground spaces.
  2. Assuming. We all know what that does. Our interactions with others at work nearly always bear the potential of having a frustrating outcome. When a manager hands out a new assignment with little detail, for example. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can fill in all of the blanks correctly without clarification. If your assumptions are incorrect then you and your manager will both be frustrated, or worse. Being authentic in this situation means we seek clarification and ask questions when necessary. It may even become necessary to go back later for further clarification. We must be willing to put ego aside in order to get what’s needed to completely and successfully do the task assigned.
  3. No one is perfect. We’ve all had a leader that seemed to be the whole package. They have a sparkling personality with expertly-timed wit and deep pools of wisdom, a wardrobe that screams professional leader, and an ability to inspire anyone in a fifty-mile radius. The truth is that a leader is one hundred percent as human as you and I. They are concerned about their job performance and how to balance work and personal just as much as the rest of us. If we are being authentic then we are recognizing the humanity of those around us, regardless of their position in the organization. We don’t need to obsess over how we are being perceived, we just need to be ourselves and allow others to be themselves as well, imperfections and all.
  4. Fear is a liar. Speak up. Fear is a tangible barrier to authenticity. Personified, it’s a liar who is there in stressful moments whispering things in our ear such as, “don’t speak up, don’t make waves, you’ll make a spectacle of yourself”. It’s just not true! I remember a time when I was in a project meeting where everyone was enthusiastically agreeing with the project lead about direction. I didn’t agree and saw what I believed was a huge potential issue with the direction we were considering, but I didn’t say anything. Toward the end of the meeting, the project lead looked at me and asked what I thought. I had a split second to decide if I would agree with everyone else, or if I would speak up about my concerns. My heart was pounding and my mouth instantly went desert-dry as fear screamed in my head “JUST AGREE!” I decided to speak up and the project lead thanked me for doing so. By being authentic and saying no to fear I helped that project take the right direction from the beginning.

We all want to be our best selves at work but that doesn’t mean we have to give up the things that make each us unique. There’s unspeakable value in showing up ready to face the challenges our work brings each day but we don’t have to compromise authenticity in the process. Let’s all follow the advice I was given: keep being you!

Lisa Menke is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a digital media developer who is passionate about the intersection where opportunities for professional growth and participatory culture meet. As a training specialist for the State of Nebraska, Lisa is currently responsible for the creation of digital media in support of agency training & development, and communications. Read her posts here

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Catherine Andrews

“Fear is a tangible barrier to authenticity” is a sentence that will stick with me a long time. So true and insightful.