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Can You Truly Be Yourself At Work?

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Imagine that you’re in a meeting room with several co-workers. Before the meeting begins, people are sharing what they did over the weekend. Because it’s seen as hip to go out on the weekends and network with other professionals, many of your peers talk about happy hours and fundraising events they attended, with ample name-dropping. Finally, someone asks you how your spent your weekend. You stammer for a response, because you aren’t into those kinds of activities. Instead, you spent Friday night baking bread, Saturday working in your garden, and Sunday at church. But how do you be truthful and risk not fitting in with the company culture?

Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” the struggle between conformity and authenticity in the workplace is a major stressor for employees.

Part of this struggle has to do with our basic human desire to fit in. But it also has to do with corporate survival. If we see someone at work who is wildly successful, we’re told to emulate that person’s powerful qualities. But what if that’s simply not us?

Sometimes, failing to fit in is an occupational hazard. It might lead to being passed over for a promotion or a raise. A person who doesn’t toe the company line might not get invited to participate in important projects that can lead to advancement.

Hewlett’s research shows that women and people of color face more challenges than their counterparts in navigating this balance. In fact, one of her studies found that over 40 percent of professionals of color felt the need to compromise their true selves in order to conform to company standards.

I find this sad and disturbing. Moreover, stifling employees’ true natures is a real loss to these companies.

Keep in mind that being authentic doesn’t mean we should do whatever we want. It’s important to be professional and courteous at work; just because you don’t like to wear pants around your house doesn’t mean you should show your authenticity by not wearing pants at the office. But when we find ourselves second-guessing ourselves and how we “should” respond in situations out of fear that we’ll be outcast, there’s a problem.

So don’t be intimidating when your true nature is gentler than that. Don’t hide your goofy sense of humor, because your creativity and energy will probably suffer too. There has to be a balance between being our authentic selves and being what we need to be in order to make our career situation a win-win for everyone involved. It may not be easy, but I believe we can improve our skills and adjust to corporate requirements in such a way that our core personality and values remain intact.

Do you agree?


Hewlett, S. A. (2014). Executive presence: The missing link between merit and success. Harper Business: New York.

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