Being Yourself at Work

By Marcus Thornley, CEO Play Consulting

I was high performing but I was blowing up inside. I started having panic attacks which were terrifying. I was constantly angry. I wasn’t nice to be around. And then I was sacked.

It’s the only time I’ve ever been sacked from a job and it hurt deep. 

Over time, I realised that it was me that lost me my job – I had ceased to be employable in the position I had. 

The thing was, I hadn’t been acting like me. I was behaving like someone I didn’t recognise, maintaining a façade at work, a false persona. And the longer it went on, the more ‘work Marcus’ and ‘non-work Marcus’ had diverged… and the more mentally and physically exhausting the pretence had become.

Although at the time the experience was difficult, it got me thinking about how important it is to be yourself at work, it’s just that work doesn’t always make it that easy. 

I think what makes it so hard at work is that it brings with it so much baggage, within an environment where the context and job roles are externally determined. It can almost feel as though it’s essential to wear a mask.

“It is torturous to be constantly watching oneself and be fearful of being caught out of our usual role. And we are never free from concern if we think that every time anyone looks at us he is always taking-our measure… the life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety.”

Seneca, Tranquility of Mind

I think some of what Seneca talks about, thousands of years ago, is what we’d see as psychological safety today. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School describes psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up, it describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’ [1

I think this element of interpersonal trust is key, not just with senior leadership in a company but with every person you come into contact with. It’s the building of trust between people that builds organisational trust. And you can’t trust someone unless you feel you know the authentic them. You will only share things that are important to you if you feel there is a safe space where you will not be judged.

In setting up Play Consulting I didn’t want people to join and feel they have to act a certain way. In realising that a more authentic Marcus could be happier and higher performing, it seemed to make sense to create a space where everyone could be their authentic selves. Yes, there are cultural norms, behaviours and taboos but I wanted to create a culture built around interpersonal trust, where people feel safe being themselves. 

Being your authentic self is about not faking it: as Brené Brown says: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”[2

That doesn’t mean therapy-levels of naked honesty either – the full (and terrifying) ‘360degree view of Marcus’. It just means a little more authenticity than the slither workplaces usually encourage be an improvement. 

To put another way, would it make sense for an organisation to only want 10% of a person? Maybe if we’re hiring awful people it might, but if we’re hiring well (and we are) then it makes sense to create an environment where greater authenticity is encouraged and welcomed. 

So how do we achieve this? Here are some practical tips that have helped us at Play Consulting:

  1. Share first – this doesn’t need to feel like an AA meeting, and it doesn’t need to be a self-help brutal truth session. What it does need to be is honest and real. Sharing your experiences and things that matter to you makes you vulnerable and lets others know that it’s okay to share what is important to them too. 
  2. Appreciate – when people do share, it can’t be left unnoticed. If you’ve gone to the effort of creating a culture where people can share what is important to them, you can’t reply with radio silence. This could be as simple as recognising a chat over coffee, a contribution to an employee ideas programme, or a thank-you for comments and discussions in a meeting. 
  3. Find a scaleable way to do this – you need to create a curated safe space online that allows people to share what might seem like small moments; watching your favourite band on the weekend, sharing a holiday snap whilst away, revelling in your daughter passing her driving test and becoming a personal taxi (yes, the last one is mine!). It may sound like a shameless plug, but our client experience of Totem has proved, these moments build trust. So much so, that we have even had someone feel safe enough to come out on Totem.

The above and Totem might sound a little ‘unicorns and rainbows’, like a soft resolution for interpersonal connectivity. But, allows people to feel they can show their whole selves and build two-way trust. 

Most powerful of all is to lead by example. Show your colleagues that you trust them, that you can handle the real them, and help create a workplace where people are both happy and successful. Where people can be themselves and not act like I was, trying to keep up with an expectation of a ‘work self’ and failing badly.

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