I often hear from my clients that they fear revealing themselves too much at work. They keep a tight rein on their emotions and stay remote from others. They protect themselves from getting too close and possibly getting hurt. They feel that they must play “the corporate game” and pretend to be someone they aren’t.
Unfortunately, when you hold yourself back in the workplace, you are missing out on a chance to make close relationships as well as get support from your colleagues. The support can be emotional as well as work-related. Someone who has your back is more likely to help out when you have a tough deadline. When you aren’t authentic, you will ultimately feel unappreciated at work because they won’t really know the true you.
Often expectations of how you think one is “supposed to behave” at work can be at odds with how you see yourself. For instance, you might be a loving and kind person who comes off as a pushy so-and-so at work. You may have been taught that you must compartmentalize and keep your work self for work and your real self for home. And though there are reasons to protect yourself in any context where you feel unsafe or doubt the trustworthiness of others, most of the time you will feel better and be more successful when you reveal your natural self. You can be true to yourself while behaving work-appropriately. The first step is getting a clear understanding of your company’s culture.
Understand Your Company Culture
There are always expectations for work style and behavior at any company. Some might be explicit like getting to work at a certain hour or regularly attending staff meetings. But many expectations for how you are supposed to behave at work are not overtly stated. And that is the area where many people trip up. They assume they need to be a certain way without ever getting a clear understanding of what tone and style are expected at that company. Or they assume that they can do their projects the way they have done in the past without learning what approach is expected in their company.
It is always best if you are able to find out what is expected in explicit detail. Talk to others in the company. Meet with your boss to understand what they expect. Have a conversation where you ask lots of questions until you are clear of their expectations. If your manager is not willing or able to articulate clearly what his or her expectations are for your work, it will be more difficult for you, but not impossible to figure out.
One method for understanding your company’s culture is to watch what others in your position or a similar position are doing. Who is successful and what makes them a success? Also consider the style and methods that the most senior people in your company exhibit. Do they consult with others before making decisions? Do they regularly share and communicate with everyone? Do they appear relaxed and calm (who knows what’s going on inside) in their decision-making? Are they fast-paced and quick deciders? Are they organized and methodical or go with the flow? What are the dress codes like? How are deadlines handled? Is there a culture of meetings or are communications done mostly by email? The more you understand your company, the better you can match your behavior to meet the stated and unstated expectations.
Of course you might find yourself in a company where you are completely at odds with its style. The best solution for that is to get to know a company before you join it. Very few people fully grasp the concept that in a job interview you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you. Do lots of research on the company and its leaders before taking a new position. Talk to as many people in different positions as you possibly can before you accept an offer. You will find that it is easier to be yourself if the company you are working for has the same general sensibilities as you. If not, consider changing companies.
If it isn’t a question of your company being totally misaligned with your personal truths, then explore what is appropriate behavior at your company. There are a few traits that most companies expect from their employees. These are really no different from how you expect others to treat you whether you are in work or not. Be dependable, show initiative, be cooperative, be positive, and be respectful. Most corporate cultures also expect that you will learn and grow. But how much a company tolerates when things that don’t go smoothly—as they invariably will—may differ dramatically. Some companies embrace the concept of “failing forward.” They allow for mistakes with the understanding that you will remedy the situation as best as possible, that you take responsibility for the outcome and very importantly that you learn from your mistakes. Cultures differ on this but no matter the company, acknowledging your mistake and saying you are sorry is usually the best approach.
Most companies—no matter how disorganized—appreciate people who meet deadlines. You could be a disorganized mess at home but one of the most effective ways to be successful at work is to get organized. Having systems that help you to tackle your work projects methodically, even if you are naturally chaotic, is worth establishing. Multi-tasking skills are so essential these days that it is worth getting training on task management if that isn’t your natural strength. Learning new skills doesn’t make you at odds with your authentic self.
Visibility is a really important facet of most corporate cultures that is rarely spoken of. Being visible means that you make certain that others know what you are doing, that you are available and that you have something to contribute. That means you should speak up in meetings, initiate emails and don’t just wait for other people to reach out.
“Don’t just wait” is a good way to define initiative in general and most companies appreciate this approach. Give a heads up when you see something like a deadline that others might have forgotten. Keep others on your team posted on where you are in a project. Basically manage expectations. Just as you want to know others’ expectations, let your expectations be known. Reciprocity is a helpful way to live. Treat others as you want them to treat you. Share and keep others posted just as you want them to share with you. Be kind and caring just as you want them to be nice to you. The more comfortable you become at recognizing the needs of yourself as well as others, the more valuable you become to your company.
Although you can keep whatever you want to keep personal and out of the workplace, that doesn’t mean you have to completely cut off your personality while you are working. Get clarity on the corporate culture at your workplace, and be yourself. As you relax your defenses and allow your natural self to exist in the corporate confines, the more you will see the humanity in others. And you might be surprised to find that you are even more successful when you are authentic and truthful about who you are. And that is a step closer to making the workday more rich and meaningful for everyone.