How to Be Authentic at Work While Keeping Up Appearances

Most people would never lie on a resume.

But what about saying you’re outgoing when you’re really not? Or saying you love being organized when your desk is always a cluttered mess?

There can be real pressure to shape yourself into who you think your employer wants you to be, especially when some personality traits are seen as more “professional” than others.

For instance, your job wants a “go-getter.” You’re an introvert. Should you be up front about that?

It’s a dilemma Paul Strickland has seen over the years as a career counselor at the University of St. Thomas. But there’s value in being authentic with your boss.

“Occasionally, when I’m working with a student, or even a mid-career person, they will say even sheepishly, ‘I’m an introvert,’” he said.

“It just makes me sad, because you are bringing something that the team probably needs, because they probably have been hiring extroverts for a while.”

‘Be yourself’? Okay…

One recent study from Rice University found that people who were open about their “non-visible stigmas,” such as sexual orientation or physical disability, felt more satisfied at their jobs.

Illustration of man giving presentation to his work peers. Authentic at Work pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
In the office, there aren’t good types or bad types of personalities.

If you always feel like you’re hiding yourself, you might not ever be comfortable.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In many ways, modern Western workplaces embrace the idea that everyone is different. Some require personality tests like Myers-Briggs and Strengthsfinder to help you figure out how to work in harmony with your peers.

Since the 1960s, the phrase “be yourself” has skyrocketed in popularity in books, Hollywood films and newspaper articles.

But authenticity is also a buzzword. It can feel like there’s only a small range of “acceptable” traits, especially when research has shown that workplaces often prefer a traditionally masculine management style over a “feminine” one, for instance.

“If you’re dealing with self-doubt around who you are… you may posture or try to hard to show up as someone who you’re not,” said Mary Stieber Reynhout, director of career services for Career Partners International- Twin Cities. “I think most personalities could be successful regardless of role.”

Left-hand traits

The way Strickland sees it, we all have right-hand traits — things that come more naturally to us — and left-hand traits — things that are less natural.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do those left-handed traits, or that we won’t be good at them someday.

So if you find yourself vying for a job that requires some traits you’re new to, you shouldn’t misrepresent yourself when it comes to those skills. Instead, emphasize that you’re eager and able to learn them.

It’s your job to figure out whether you’d truly be successful.

“You know that part of the interview where they say, ‘Do you have any questions for me?’ And a lot of people go, ‘Why do they say that?’” Strickland said. “That’s an opportunity to find out, ‘How am I going to react to this work environment?’”

You don’t want to end up in an environment that’s completely wrong for you. But there’s a good chance you’re overlooking the traits that would make you good for a job.

“As a candidate, certainly look at the responsibilities and listen to that small voice that says, ‘Does this excite me?’” Stieber Reynhout said.

Many people don’t apply for a job if they don’t feel 100 percent qualified. But just because you think you don’t fit a mold doesn’t mean you don’t have good qualities for the position.

“Let’s say that I’m not naturally outgoing,” Strickland said. “That does not mean I’m not socially skilled and good with people. It means I bring a different style to it.”

No bad types

That doesn’t mean you should misrepresent yourself when you’re interviewing for a position, or once you’re in the role.

Don’t say you’re an extrovert if you’re an introvert. There’s a good chance your manager will be able to read your personality regardless.

Besides, most people aren’t good at being completely inauthentic.

In the office, there aren’t good types or bad types of personalities. Stieber Reynhout recommends talking with your supervisor upfront about your personality and the personalities of your teammates.

“In relationships, you’ll have greater success if you are accommodating the differences that just will naturally exist versus coming in dominantly with your own style,” she said. “So you’ll achieve your greatest success with a give and a take.”

Stieber Reynhout and Strickland both said it’s okay to present the best side of yourself, or a polished version of your authentic traits.

Get to know how your work style is valuable in your environment, and go all in.

“Generally speaking, be a real smart version of your authentic self,” Strickland said. “I might be authentically any number of things, but some of them are not very interesting to my employer. It has to be an authentic attribute that adds value.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.