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Embracing Imperfections and Authenticity at Work

Do you have a “work self” and a “home self”?

As a career coach and psychotherapist, many of the clients I work with describe feeling like they have to wear a mask at work to fake being smart enough. Or they say they don’t feel creative and alive at their office. “Why do I freeze at work?” “Why do the best parts of myself not show up?” or “Why do I not click with my coworkers?” they want to know. For some, it’s the other way around: They feel more like themselves at work than at home.

But the way we show-up to work has less to do with where we are and more to do with how safe we feel in showing up as our authentic selves.

Brené Brown said, “the core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, to be vulnerable…” And according to a Psychology Today article, “to be authentic means you are able to express and share what you think or feel in a relatively unadulterated form.” Taken together, we could say that authenticity is being able to say how you think or feel, even if it is imperfect, without fear of judgement or retaliation.

As it turns out, this sort of authenticity plays a big role in professional success. Google conducted research to find out why some teams succeed and others failed. Their research showed that teams who share their authentic selves with co-workers perform better.

Furthermore, psychological safety, the sense of trust, respect, and acceptance created in an authentic workplace, is the determining factor to team success. Said another way, our ability to be authentic with others is related to the psychological safety we feel in our environments.

Psychological safety can be created when conversations go beyond the superficial, and people feel they can share about what’s going on in different areas of life without judgment. Why? Because people want to connect and talk with people who are just as human as they are; people who are not perfect.

It sounds like a carefree way of being in the world, to let all the parts of your personality shine through, but it can be hard if there isn’t a sense of trust built into personal or professional relationships.

Healthy, self-disclosure with boundaries at work begins with self-awareness and emotional intelligence to understand what is appropriate and what is not. In a Harvard Business Review article, Lisa Rosch and Lynn Offermann, professor of management at Yeshiva University and professor of organizational sciences and communications at George Washington University, respectively, suggest being yourself, “but carefully.” They caution to remember that sharing intimate stories can strengthen relationships, but they do not establish them.

You have to know your audience, and like any other relationship, trust is built over time. For example, I’ve worked with one of my co-workers for four years, and over time, she’s shared challenging experiences she is going through like when her grandmother passed away, or even challenges with work projects. I also hear about upcoming vacations out West, her latest volunteer experience, and podcasts she is loving. It has helped me feel closer to her, to see her as a person who has a fuller life outside of work, which makes her so much more relatable. I admire her for the way she is open about what matters most to her, which then in turn gives me a sense of permission to be more open about my own life.

I’m able to share what I’ve done on the weekend, tell her about a new tradition I’ve started with my niece each time I visit, or ask for her input on professional development opportunities I’m researching. I feel grateful this co-worker knows what’s important to me both personally and professionally as we share and exchange pieces of our lives. This vulnerability in sharing has created a trust that helps us work and communicate better too.

When I need someone to check-in guests for an event I’m hosting or a workshop I’m facilitating, I know I can turn to her to be an extra hand. And when she needs a brainstorming partner for a new article she’s writing, I’m there. A sense of mutual trust, unconditional support, and goodwill for one another’s success is the foundation that keeps us connected and showing up for each other and ourselves.

Authenticity doesn’t always mean communication is easy; it means it’s real and genuine. When we disagree about how to move forward on a project we can share our thoughts and feelings with respect.

Creating this authentic culture depends on all of us. Think about how you can create psychological safety with and for others. Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined a hierarchy of needs children have in order to feel safe and secure. But Maslow’s Hierarchy can apply to adults, too. Some of these needs include support, loyalty, trust, nurturing, guidance, and acceptance. Listen, validate feelings without judgment, be vulnerable in a boundaried way and share parts of your life to let others connect on a personal level.

Are you part of creating a psychologically safe space where you and your colleagues can show up authentically? Consider the following checklists:

Creating psychological safety:

  1. I am kind and respectful towards my coworkers even if I have a different opinion

  2. I listen to other people when they are talking without talking over or cutting them off

  3. I acknowledge other people’s wins out of genuine goodwill and support for them

  4. I trust that my coworkers are doing the best that they can

  5. I support my colleagues by showing up to their events or lending a hand in their projects when needed

Showing up authentically:

  1. I share information I’m comfortable with about my life outside of work with coworkers that helps them get to know me on a personal level

  2. I share mistakes I make at work and am open to feedback and new ideas

  3. I share my thoughts and ideas with my team to be transparent and open

  4. I ask for what I need and express my feelings with colleagues

Being yourself and showing up authentically at home and at work allow for a sense of peace. So, the next time you’re preparing for a team meeting and hoping to connect with your co-workers on a deeper level, try asking them about their lives, and be vulnerable by sharing in an appropriate and comfortable way what’s happening in your life. With time psychological safety and trust will be built. As author Marianne Williamson has put it beautifully, when we “let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

*Originally published in Verily Magazine

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