How to Get Comfortable “Being Yourself” at Work

How to Get Comfortable “Being Yourself” at Work

By Lan Nguyen Chaplin

I’m a business professor who has visible tattoos, seven earrings, and purple, blue, or pink hair on any given week. I come into work later than others do and leave early to pick up my kids. I take Zoom calls in a hoodie from my backyard. In the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk about what it means to be professional while presenting authentically. There’s been a lot of encouragement around bringing our full selves to our jobs.

We’re all aware of the benefits of being yourself at work: better life satisfaction, a healthier well-being, and higher levels of motivation, performance, and productivity.

Typically, though, “being yourself” while “being taken seriously” is easier said than done. This is especially true when you’re just starting out, or when you’re seasoned but new to an organization. You haven’t established your credibility, nor have you found your tribe. You want to belong, but you also don’t know how. You’re still trying to read the company culture.

When you believe that you have something valuable to contribute, you’ll feel more confident speaking and showing up authentically, and your fear of judgement will naturally dampen.

I understand the dilemma. I haven’t always felt so liberated in my appearance. More often, I’ve been a people pleaser. Out of fear of disappointing others or falling short of expectations, I’ve had a hard time setting boundaries around my personal and professional identities. It took me over a decade to blend the two in a way that I’m proud of and that represents who I am.

The best timeline for you in this respect is always going to be the one that feels right and safe. Don’t feel pressured by the things you read online about why first impressions matter or why you have 90 days to establish your entire reputation. Authenticity is more about how you feel in this moment of your life and what you’ll do to honor that identity.

Here’s what I’ve learned throughout my journey — and what you can do to get more comfortable with your own.

[  1  ] Convince yourself that you belong in the room.

Whether you’re just beginning your career or changing roles, you’re starting from scratch every time you meet new people. In these situations, you want to figure out which aspects of your background are both exciting for you to spotlight and qualify you to be there. When you believe that you have something valuable to contribute, you’ll feel more confident speaking and showing up authentically, and your fear of judgement will naturally dampen.

Why? Because you’ll be focused on what really matters: using your unique knowledge and experience to make an impact. If you aren’t convinced that you deserve to be in the room, how can you expect anyone else to be?

Here’s how to get started:

Identify what you have to offer.

Don’t just have a general mantra of “I belong at the table.” Take the time to create a thoughtful list of how and why you belong. Start paying attention to what makes you you — your background, talents, beliefs, and values. These are your strengths, and they will set you apart if you’re willing to share them.

One question you can ask yourself is: What is the organization missing when I’m not present? Write down your answers, including the results of the work you contribute. As you brainstorm, be clear with yourself about the advantage you and your skills bring to your team. Sadly, no one is interested in how passionate you are about your job or how late you log off every night if you’re not contributing value.

For example, maybe you recognize that your experience as a multicultural and multilingual first-generation professional is your secret sauce. Because of your background, you are uniquely qualified to help your organization honor its public-facing commitments to diversity, and your input offers a competitive advantage to teams trying to tap into international markets. Maybe you’re the go-to person for things that allow your team to run efficiently: the reliable colleague who always replies with thoughtful feedback, the peer who can easily weave together polarizing ideas, or the rising leader who isn’t afraid to ask “Why?”

Don’t mistake the things that come naturally to you as easy, and therefore, unimportant skills. Consider that your expertise is likely part of why you were hired, meaning it’s one of many things that your organization needs to drive value. Don’t mistake that coming straight out of college means you don’t have enough experience to contribute either. You can bring a fresh viewpoint to new and old problems, and ask questions that pinpoint issues your more seasoned colleagues haven’t considered or are less able to see.

Demonstrate gravitas.

In the room itself, you need to have the confidence and credibility to capture the attention of your peers or seniors, and create interest in what you have to say. When you can command your audience with your presence, people will take your voice seriously and want to know more.

Gravitas combines authenticity and clarity. For instance, when you speak up in a meeting, be clear about where your idea comes from, why it’s important to you, what it offers the business, and what hard evidence supports it. On a deeper level, empathize with those who ask you questions, and try to view your colleagues as humans, not transactions you need to conduct. This mindset will help you come across as outwardly authentic.

Pro tip: Once you know what you offer, I’d recommend scheduling informal coffee chats or lunches with influential people who you hold in high esteem throughout the company. Seek out people who are open-minded and who have shown you, or others, allyship and support. In my experience, this is a good way to become “known” and make your ideas and contributions visible. The more relationships you develop, the more welcome you’ll feel.

[  2  ] Take the time you need to find your voice (and be vulnerable).

While you may want to appear faultless to gain the respect of others, especially as the new person, your imperfections are what ultimately will draw people in. You need to be vulnerable to build meaningful relationships at work, but finding your style — your unique way of expressing your “humanness” — is going to take some trial and error.

As an example, when I started my career as a professor, I met with a colleague who was loved by his students. We’ll call him Jensen. I wanted to know how he did it. He told me that he connects with students by cracking jokes. That was his secret sauce and I wanted to emulate it. The problem was, I tend to be more “serious” than “funny.”

Jensen was a brilliant, charismatic, and witty academic with 20 years of experience. I, on the other hand, was just a few years older (or the same age) as my students, and too nervous to feel anything except my heart racing when I stepped into the lecture hall. How would I ever succeed?

Being vulnerable is letting your guard down just enough to allow others to feel human along with you

It took me a while to realize that what humor did for Jensen, compassion did for me.

Similarly, it’s going to take you time to figure out how to express your vulnerability at the right time to the right people. Once you do though, it can be a great way to make connections and build a foundation of trust that will make you feel more comfortable showing up authentically at work.

To begin, I recommend starting small:

Share something low-stakes with a team member.

Make it personal and choose someone who you’d like to build a more meaningful work relationship with. For example, tell them a story about your weekend or a new hobby you’re getting into. Listen and look for cues on how they respond. Is their reaction positive? Are they willing to share something in exchange? Does the conversation make you feel positive and energized? If so, the relationship has potential.

The key here is learning how to read a room, as well as yourself. Through several small interactions you’ll learn to better understand your audience, your own level of comfortability, and how you both react to different types of information.

Consider the context.

This includes the who, what, when, where, and why of the situation. Before sharing something more personal or higher stakes with a coworker, consider the intention behind your words. I’ve shared stories about forgetting to pick up my kids at school, being mistaken as the caterer at a meeting with top leaders, and being a no-show on Zoom calls because I was operating in the wrong time zone. My intention was never to share some brilliant insight or life lesson. It was to humanize myself in front of an audience that saw me as a role model.

Ask yourself: Are you looking for support? Are you aiming to build a friendship? Are you trying to tell a funny story that will make your colleague laugh, and in turn, build a stronger connection between the two of you? Are you trying to relate to the other person with compassion? Have their reactions made you feel safe in the past? Do they tend to ask others about their personal interests and families? Do they talk about their personal interests and family?  What feels natural for you to share? Do you trust this person?

Taking a moment to reflect before sharing will help you see the outcomes you want and avoid opening up to people who make you feel uncomfortable or don’t appreciate your vulnerability.

Pro tip: Being vulnerable is letting your guard down just enough to allow others to feel human along with you. Your intention should be to build trust, and help your audience feel inspired. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit, draw inspiration from others, and figure out what kind of vulnerability feels good and what doesn’t.

[  3  ] Set boundaries to avoid oversharing.

Acting in ways that reflect your honest beliefs, emotions, and values may be one of the strongest predictors of well-being. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that there is a certain time, place, and audience required for you to safely share those parts of yourself. It’s possible to “be yourself” at work even if you don’t publicly disclose every single thought or emotion to your team members. In fact, it’s healthy to have boundaries and natural to want to keep some things private.

In summary: Don’t mistake vulnerability for oversharing. You won’t be any closer to being authentic than the person who says nothing at all.

Your boundaries are based on your unique needs and wants. They are rules, created by you, that indicate what you will accept and what you will not, including how you want to be treated by others and show up at work. What and how much you feel comfortable sharing varies from person to person.

To figure out what’s right for you, try using this two-step exercise:

On a piece of paper, create two columns.

Non-negotiables and negotiables. In the non-negotiables space, write down your values and needs that must never be violated or compromised. In the negotiables space, write down the things that bring you happiness but aren’t an immediate priority. You may, for example, want to establish a better work-life balance, but also be willing to compromise on or work towards that goal over time — making it a “negotiable.”

Feeling safe enough to share your racial, sexual, or gender identity, however, may be a “non-negotiable.” As you fill out your columns, you may find that some of your answers are nuanced. For instance, even though “inclusion” (aka sharing your identity or presenting authentically) may be a non-negotiable, “privacy,” or having the autonomy to decide when and with whom you share, may be as well.

Write a personal philosophy.

Are there any patterns in the thoughts, words, ideas, and actions you wrote down? Use these to come up with a short list of core values (e.g., inclusion, family, morality, integrity) and write down why they are important to you, how you practice them, and how they influence your goals.

Now, use what you’ve written to come up with a shorter personal philosophy, or a motto that feels undeniably true to you. My personal philosophy is, “I’m not for everyone and not everyone is for me. I choose to live a life with integrity.”

Becoming true to yourself is a lifelong journey, and one that will evolve and change over time as you learn more about your character and core values.

In moments of self-consciousness, small or large, I come back to it to remind myself of who I am and check my integrity. If I’m living my truth, then I let the panic go. It acts as a guide for my words and behaviors, and helps me recognize when a boundary needs to be set or has been crossed.

Your philosophy can similarly help you enter the workplace with confidence and recover when you feel your integrity or sense of self is being challenged.

Pro tip: Sometimes you may share something that you wish you hadn’t. Give yourself some grace. It’s going to take a little trial and error to figure out your boundaries, as well as other people’s. In all situations, listen to your instincts. The sooner you and your colleagues can establish what behaviors you find “okay” versus “not okay,” the sooner everyone will know where they stand. Feelings of hurt, confusion, and frustration can be minimized.

For example, if you gauge that a team member may be uncomfortable hearing about your personal life, or if you decide that you feel uncomfortable sharing, there are ways for you to be honest while protecting both of your boundaries and privacy. In these cases, a simple and honest statement will let people know what you need without oversharing.  (“I’m having a hard time with all the demands in my life, and I won’t be able to respond to emails after 5:00 pm.”)

[  4  ] Practice deep listening.

It’s often tempting to say things and act in ways that you think might make a good impression even if it camouflages the real you. For instance, how many times have you appeared “agreeable” during a meeting because it’s what the boss wanted to see? In these moments, I encourage you to pause, and practice listening instead of reacting. When you listen deeply, you allow yourself to be silent. Silence allows you to declutter your thought process, be present, reflect, and make an honest contribution to whatever is being discussed.

You are helping yourself be more authentic by processing the other person’s words with an open mind, reading in between the lines, and appreciating body language, cadence, and tone to gain a richer understanding of their words. Whether or not you agree with those words, you’re telling the speaker that they matter, and you’re giving them the time and space to be themselves. A respectful coworker will reciprocate and empower you to communicate your authentic self as well.

To put this into action, prioritize the following:

Try to keep an open mind.

Craft a couple of go-to questions that will help you listen with interest, especially in high stakes situations, when you may feel pressure to make an immediate contribution or react. For example, “Can you explain what you mean by X?” or “When would this not work, and why?” When the person speaking responds, listen intently. You can even write down notes to help you better digest and understand people’s ideas, then follow up one-on-one. This practice can help you develop the confidence to speak your truth, connect with others on a deeper level, and decrease any feelings of isolation you may be going through as the new person.

Create a time and space for important conversations.

During private meetings with colleagues, put away your phone, listen, observe nonverbal cues like posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. Aim to understand the other person’s emotions on the topic. The simple act of being present will ground you and give you the time and space to process what you’re hearing and react more authentically.

Pro tip: Deep listening is a skill that takes time to develop, but the more you do it, the better you’ll get. As you practice, try repeating the other person’s words back to them before you respond (“This is what I’m hearing from you.”). It will make them feel seen and heard while giving you extra time to process their perspective. Similarly, rather than planning a response while the other person is speaking, buy yourself time by asking for clarification (“What did you mean by X?”).

Becoming true to yourself is a lifelong journey, and one that will evolve and change over time as you learn more about your character and core values. My biggest piece of advice is to give yourself the gift of self-acceptance and cheer for others. The right people will reciprocate. When you can bring your whole self to work, you have a real chance to thrive and flourish.

Lan Nguyen Chaplin is professor of marketing at Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

This article first appeared on the Harvard Business Review website

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