Do you wear a mask at work?

This question is not about the type of mask that protects from the spread of disease, like most of humanity is wearing during the Coronavirus pandemic.  Nor is the question related to dressing up for Halloween (although it is that time of year).

“Do you wear a mask at work” refers to the metaphoric question of whether you can be your true self at work? Whether your workplace is primarily your house, a restaurant, a retail store, a school/university, or a corporate office, if you engage with others throughout your work day via phone, email, text, or in person – this is a very important question to ask and answer.

Reflection Moment: Are you able to be your true self at work?  Share your answer in the comments section below.

Now, let’s consider this question together, shall we? A few additional ways to think about whether you wear a “mask” at work are:

  • More often than not, do you hold back your honest opinion amongst your colleagues or clients?
  • Are you hypervigilant about keeping your work life and life outside of work completely separate (ie, no personal photographs in your workspace, no discussion of your non-work interests and activities with co-workers, etc.)?

These days, as equity, inclusion and diversity issues are forcing employers and employees to take a hard, critical look at work environments, there is a lot of talk about “authenticity”, “transparency”, and being able to “bring your whole self to work”.  But sometimes that’s a lot easier said than done.  

The reality is that it can be a slippery slope to navigate between the world of work and home.  And many professionals feel like they have a split personality because they’ve gotten into the habit of bringing just a part of themselves to work out of fear of not being accepted, potentially crossing a line,  or breaking an unspoken rule.  On the flip side, it can be tremendously stressful pretending to be someone you’re not at work or always having your guard up, which diminishes productivity.  Over the long run, such stress can damage your wellbeing.  And ultimately, you’re shortchanging both yourself and the organization because really – who can do their best work under those circumstances?

So, what are the best ways to be yourself at work while still remaining professional?

  1. Know thyself.  It’s not just about knowing yourself, but knowing yourself in relation to your workplace. Solicit feedback from coworkers you respect and trust to share their perceptions of you.  Combine their input with your own reflections, and use all of the information to help you decide how much and when to share personal stories and information at work.
  2. Know the purpose. Before sharing personal information at work, be clear on why.  Is the personal information relevant to the work at hand?  Is there a lesson that would be valuable for your co-workers or customers to hear and learn from?  Are you trying to build trust or are you just trying to brag or be funny?  Revealing personal information about yourself should serve a purpose other than making “friends” or “entertaining” at work.
  3. Know the truth. When sharing personal stories, don’t exaggerate or lie.  Be honest.  Often people will exaggerate to make the story fit the situation but eventually the truth comes out and your credibility will take a signficant hit.  So the best option is to be honest and tie the story directly to the message you want to convey.
  4. Know your organizational culture.  Each workplace is different.  And even within a single organization, culture can differ from department to department.  Since not all cultures are the same, you should talk to coworkers about the level of candor that is acceptable in your work environment (Tip: You will also likely be able to observe what is ok and what is not by watching others.)   Your objective is to be yourself, but not at the expense of your own reputation.
  5. Know the need for boundaries. You may feel like you can discuss anything with friends and family, but that is not the same in the workplace – even when you are “friendly” with colleagues.  Historically, topics like sex, religion, and politics are ones to steer clear of.  Unlike with a circle of friends, most workplaces have documented policies and rules that govern acceptable behavior.  Be aware of these policies and adhere to them.

Everyone should strive to bring more of their true self to work – this would surely deepen working relationships with colleagues, generate more diverse ideas,  strengthen client/customer service, and increase productivity.  However, it is also important to remember that being your true self at work does not give a person carte blanche to do and say whatever they want, whenever they want.  It is still important to navigate within the guardrails of what is professional and acceptable in your work environment.

Additional Resources:

  1. Forbes Article: Being Yourself at Work: Is it Good or Bad for Your Career

  1. Podcast: WorkLife with Adam Grant: Authenticity is a double edged sword
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